[Granta; 2023]

In his debut novel Though the Bodies Fall, Noel O’Regan follows the skillful tradition of Irish authors who give their readers a distinct, evocative sense of place. We can hear the waves crashing and the song of the birds, feel the unsteadiness of the cycle uphill, and smell the wildflower-burst field. The vivid descriptions of this field lead us to the pebble-dashed bungalow where the narrator, Micheál Burns, grew up. As the waves crash into the cliffs of the picturesque Kerry Head in a brilliant ebb and flow, Micheál shifts between his childhood and the present time in a stream of musings and encounters with “visitors.”

Besides being situated at the end of Kerry Head, noted to be one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, Micheál’s home was special for its darker side. The visitors of this “tourist’s dream of a rural Irish cottage” were lost souls who came to the cliffs to find eternal peace. In short, the home was a known suicide spot. Micheál’s parents felt it was their spiritual duty to save these people, and so he continues this work after his father’s death. We soon discover that it is Micheál himself who is a lost soul, and O’Regan begins to unravel the traumas beneath which the protagonist has been slowly sinking all his life. Toward the end of the novel, the protagonist wishes the story of his family were “as obvious and easy as a haunting: blood on the walls, objects flying, shattering.” Instead, resolving family traumas and histories—especially ones so troubled by bereft visitors—is proven to not be so simple.

The novel asks us to consider whether Micheál’s mother was right to put the visitors above her children and whether Micheál was right to put the visitors above his sisters, even when he was older and wiser. An age-old question follows us as we see him take up this mission at a young age, which clearly affects him throughout his whole life: Can we help others if we cannot help ourselves?

His sisters are incredulous that Micheál still lives in the bungalow, believing family history can be left in the past. His sister Saoirse scoffs at him:

So the past and the present are two different states, is that what you’re telling me? With you here, back in this house, with the visitors—and you’re telling me that the past is dealt with? Even at the best of times, keeping the past at bay is like—what’s that game? You see it all the time in American TV shows, every time they go to a fun fair. What-a-mole! It’s like what-a-mole. And being stuck back here, you have no hope of keeping them all in their holes.

Yes, the story does, in some instances, deal with suicide. However, Though the Bodies Fall is also very much about Micheál’s feeling of duty, which affects the life he ends up leading, as well as about family relationships and love. His reasons for taking up his post are many. He did so as a young boy, and we can assume that he may have inherited some of those reasons from his mother. Regardless, it becomes clear that Micheál wants to play a significant role in someone’s life or, rather, in the lives of countless visitors. Micheál must wrestle with the distorted ideas he has about himself and his purpose in life as his sisters pressure him to agree to sell the house.

The mother-child relationships which O’Regan weaves together in his dark fiction are in many ways unlike most, what with the duty to save those who wish to commit suicide. However, in many other ways, they resemble all parental relationships, in that they are complicated at best. Speaking of Micheál’s mother, his other sister Áine says, “She may have been a good person, in some ways. She was just a terrible mother.” Even though he admits her declarations of love often sounded like “a threat, or a damning verdict,” Micheál is nevertheless sure that she loved them. The love their mother felt for those she saved is seen as stronger than what she felt for her children. As Áine observes: “She wanted to feel like she was making a difference, that she had a meaning.” Micheál’s sister accuses him of falling for the same “trap,” for the same sense of purpose which glued him to one place: “Probably makes you feel a little less like you’ve fucked up your life.” Had Micheál’s mother acted selflessly if she sacrificed the children’s happiness along the way? Can self-sacrifice come from a selfless place, or is it also inherently egocentric?

The pain the children have borne their whole lives is mainly ascribed to their mother’s work. When recounting how much she wanted to be far away from their home, their mother, the burden of it all, one of the sisters describes self-harm and a suicide attempt, which she felt needed to happen on her own terms. “I didn’t want to use the cliffs and I didn’t want Mam to be there, because fuck her, and fuck her getting a chance to ‘save my soul’.” The extent of the sisters’ anger reaches their brother, too. Having left briefly to study at Limerick, Micheál was given the opportunity to “escape” before his sisters could.

A few aspects of the novel may not fulfill the expectations set out by its premise. First, the story focuses on Micheál and his relationships far more than on the strangers who come to his home, whose reasons for seeing death as the only option provide a fascinating read. Second, the novel is a slow burn, and some readers may find that the characters do not do much more than brood over the past. Overall, however, the novel offers a distinctive perspective on family dynamics, particularly those between a mother and her children. O’Regan’s portrayal of Micheál’s anguish between the past and the future challenges readers to consider their own relationships and regrets. Featured in Electric Literature’s “Most Anticipated Irish Novels of 2023,” O’Regan’s Though the Bodies Fall promises to leave its readers touched and presents a story which they could not have anticipated.

Michaela Králová is a research assistant at Trinity College Dublin, focusing on queer identities, translation, and Ukrainian theatre. Originally from Prague, Czech Republic, she works as a translator, theatre-maker, and writer. Updates on her work can be found at @MaKrlov2 on Twitter.

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