Little, Brown & Company has published In the Province of the Saints, a coming-of-age story set in the Ireland by Gotham fiction writing instructor Thomas O'Malley. Having grown up in Ireland, Thomas knows the terrain, and the reviews for the book have been unanimously wonderful.
Elsa Dixler of The New York Times Book Review wrote, “A familiar Irish song, but the words will break your heart” and Ron Charles of The Washington Post calls it “A gorgeous and heartbreaking tale of a sad Irish boyhood.”
For a bit of Irish literary magic, here is the opening of In the Province of the Saints:
in the dead of winter
I was nine the year winter came in spring, and Cait Delacey's mother, Mag of Slievecorragh, died; the winter had come and gone and surprised us with its return - sneaking furtively back to us like a fox during the night. The storm turned the sky black, the mercury plummeted, and everything beyond New Rowan froze. The snow fell so heavily and quickly it was like a hand wiping the land of every distinguishable feature. In the morning the fields were blanketed by soft-packed snow that sparkled all the way to town.
No one was prepared for snow, most especially the distraught farmers. The sudden deep chill killed livestock as well as crops. In the morning the small frozen bodies of lambs lay shrouded in white all across the hillsides and fields; clusters of sheep, their fleece now suddenly and noticeably yellow against the backdrop of white, moved in and around them, bleating softly. I stared from my bedroom window, disturbed but in awe of the storm's strange beauty.
It was the same night that Mag Delacey died quietly in her sleep as her heart ruptured but continued pumping and spilling her blood throughout the cavity of her body while her husband, John, slept beside her, only awakening when he heard a long final death rattle from her lungs and noticed the blood about her mouth, while the children down the hall, Cait, the youngest, her two sisters and four brothers, and the rest of us in the parish slept in a world of dreams, numb and oblivious to death during the soundless fall of snow covering the land beyond our curtained windows.
In the morning, when I saw Lugh McConnahue, the farmer's laborer, tracking his way across the far field, I dressed quickly and rushed out into the cold bright morning to join him. Snot froze in my nose. My breath whistled high in my chest. Ice crystals sparkled on tree limbs where crows were already gathering. Lugh was kneeling before a lamb, his thin angular frame bent, cords of tight-wound muscle flexed in his shoulders and back. His black shaggy head was flecked with silver frost.
Howya, Lugh, I called. Jaysus, it's cold so. Lugh looked up, squinting. He had hard drinking eyes, bleached and pale, like I remembered my father's. At times I wondered if I actually remembered Father or had merely created an image of him in my mind and clung to it, and dreamed of him instead. He was in America these last two years working on the construction, and always, it seemed, on the point of return. Lugh's face was wan and pinched. He smiled grimly.
'Tis that. He looked back at the lamb.
Ah, the poor little lambs, I said, leaning forward, resting my hands on my thighs.Feckin shame, Lugh agreed. Paddy'll be fit to be tied. He tenderly brushed the snow from the lamb's face. Its brown eyes stared back, and I was waiting for it to blink; it seemed that if you touched the lamb it would still be warm, the fleece still soft, the heart still alive within, and that it might awake. Lugh grasped its rigid hind legs, and in one quick movement hurled it into the back of the lorry with a loud resounding crack of bone against metal.
How many do you think there are? he asked as he reached for another carcass. I looked about the field and up the slopes of the valley, and I thought about Paddy Flaherty's fields that lay beyond the road and on the other side of the hill, all covered in white death.
I shrugged. There's got to be a hundred or more. Lugh nodded and grimaced. Oh, he'll be on the tear after this all right.
In the pub? I asked and he laughed. In the pub, on the horses, with the women. I nodded seriously as if I understood this.
Lugh paused and cracked his back. I had gloves on but my hands were numb.
How's your mammy? he asked. She's well, I said without ever thinking whether she was or not; she hadn't been up when I left. She'd been sleeping for days it seemed, only rising late at night while Molly and I lay awake in bed, listening.
We grunted together as I helped him swing the next body into the lorry, balancing my short-limbed swing with his large one, my smaller hands wrapped around their narrow legs, my fingers pressing in the narrow spaces between their small bones so that when I squeezed really hard I could hear them splinter and crack. I looked away from their eyes.
It's a terrible thing, Lugh said and I agreed.
I headed back to the house to light the fire, to feed the dog and let it out, and watched from the kitchen window as Flaherty's other laborers arrived and gathered up the small bodies. All through the day the lorry made its slow progress through the fields and up the hills, leaving behind deep black furrows in the white snow, so deep it seemed as if nothing might be able to touch that spot ever again.
To read more of Thomas's book, find In The Province of The Saints online at bn.com or in your favorite bookstore. Copyright © by Thomas O'Malley. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown & Company. All rights reserved.
Thomas will be in New York City reading from his novel on Wednesday, November 9. For details, visit readings.