Shall We Gather At The River by Peter Murphy (Faber)
Review by Charles Rangeley-Wilson.
Sound and Fury
Winter 1984, under blackened skies, the rusty-watered River Rua bursts its banks and turns fury – or vengeance or justice or deliverance – on the Irish town of Murn. For a week it rains and the river roars, and everywhere is ‘besieged and soaked as that bloated old river conquered the valley slopes and threatened the town’s worried heart.’ Finally the river subsides, delivering, one by one, the bodies of its victims – nine in all. And the town asks why? Shall We Gather at the River? is the second novel by Irish writer Peter Murphy, following his much vaunted debut John the Revelator, a book that left Roddy Doyle hungry to turn each page, that in the words of Colm Toibin was ‘contemporary, original, disturbing and brave’.
Murphy’s prose style is unique, but its roots are firmly sunk into the peat and gneiss of Ireland, where he was born in 1968, son of a post office clerk and boxer. A precociously talented author from his teens, Murphy has also toured as a drummer, shared the stage with heavyweight acts like The Cramps and Public Enemy, and worked for some years as one of Dublin’s most prominent and prolific arts journalists. And indeed the myth and mist-soaked cloth of his work is woven through with a distinctly gothic rhythm and rhyme, a tautness of telling and ear for phrase.
Shall We Gather at the River? – the title comes from a Victorian hymn – grabs you with this cocktail on the very first page and doesn’t let go until the wild ride is over. The town asks why and only Enoch O’Reilly knows the answer. But he too is dead now, called to (or calling) the destined, all-consuming flood. We spin back 28 years and the child Enoch is born, days after – we later learn – a flood of similar destruction and appetite for human souls. He’s a strange boy with goatish eyes who dreams of Elvis and is haunted with curiosity for what his father, the disciplinarian radio ham Frank O’Reilly, can be doing in that cellar under Ballo Manor day after day.
But curiosity never did serve cats well. Enoch steals down there one day, drawn to the hiss and crackle emanating from a glowing monitor, a transistor and headphones: his ‘pale and chubby hands twist the dial … his skin tingles and his scalp tightens on his skull … pianettes and harps and an old crone’s warble, classical music and then a preacher’s voice, no mistaking its fury “HOLY GHOST RADIO, transmitting for your benefit THE SOUNDS OF THE DEAD”’ What Enoch hears, though he doesn’t yet know it, the voice that captivates him, that drives him away from the school-mates who bully him, from the small-town that cursed him, is his own voice, the re-born prodigal preacher Enoch, on the eve of a great flood, on the eve of his own death. Those meddling hands have unspooled the work of a lifetime, his father’s divination of the rhythms and desires of the sacred river, and when Enoch returns years later, a tap-dancing, Elvis-impersonating false prophet come to claim the soul of his town, the river’s clock is still ticking.
“I had ideas,” said Murphy of his decision to write a novel. “Stories that didn’t yet exist and I wanted them to exist. And the only way they would exist was if I wrote them. There’s something crackling and magic about that (Irish) landscape. It’s very beautiful, but also the darkness of nature is very evident. You look around and you see this constant dance of fertility and beauty and death and decay all happening at the same time.” There’s all of that in this strange and entrancing suicide mystery that is Shall We Gather at the River? a pummeling, relentless prose-track of fire, brimstone, black comedy and rock’n’roll.
Peter Murphy and Charles Rangeley-Wilson will be appearing at the Caught by the River Faber Social on 4 February. Details can be found here.