In 1844, the population of Ireland was about 8.4 million. In 1845 the potato crops began failing, blight-stricken tubers rotting in the ground. By 1847, an estimated 3 million were dependent on relief. Despite widespread starvation, barley and oats, the cash crops, were still being exported. These grim facts lie at the heart of the Irish writer Paul Lynch’s passionately lyrical third novel.
“Grace’’ opens in a tumble of events as the 14-year-old namesake heroine finds herself dragged from sleep one late October morning. Outside her mother sits her down on the killing stump and cuts off her hair. Then she hands her daughter a man’s shirt and a pair of breeches. Gradually Grace grasps that she is being sent out into the world as a boy, both to earn money and to avoid Boggs, the man who violates and tyrannizes her mother and who has recently turned his lustful gaze on her. “You are the strong one now,” her mother tells her.
Happily she does not leave home alone. Her 12-year-old brother, the cheeky Colly, decides to run away with her. Together the two set off for town. As they travel Colly asks riddles — “What’s thin as a rake but looks fat as a cat, is bald as a coot but wears a black hat?” — and teaches Grace to smoke a pipe; tobacco, he sagely advises, helps “stave off the appetite.” He reminds her to lower her voice and to be more manly.
Although it is not yet winter the roads are oddly quiet, and in the town there is no sign of the man Grace’s mother said would help her find work. Moreover, things are just as bad, perhaps worse, than at home: no money, no work, no potatoes for a hundred miles. Worst of all, the dreaded Boggs suddenly appears.
“Grace’’ belongs to several great traditions — the picaresque novel, the coming-of-age novel, and the orphan novel. We immediately recognize the poetic justice of Boggs reappearing to seize Colly and of Grace seizing a stone and hitting Boggs so hard she thinks she’s killed him. This incident reveals one of her several transformations. We know that she will rise to the occasion of her new clothes and her new life.
In the pages that follow, as she and Colly flee the town and confront dangers and difficulties of many kinds, Grace proves herself to be brave, impulsive, truthful, and still able to find humor in desperate situations. The famine is ferocious and makes those in its grip ferocious.
Grace finds and loses a job herding cattle, goes to a soup kitchen, and briefly gets work on a hunger road. “[W]hat has no beginning and never ends, is there to stop hunger, and yet the more you do the hungrier you get?” Colly asks.
Working on the road crew she meets the one-armed Bart, a boy only a little older than herself. Through him she begins to understand that the famine is not simply an act of God; there is still food, still money, but the wealthy keep everything to themselves. In Bart’s company Grace becomes, as her mother has prophesied, a thief. For a while they enjoy warm cloaks, meager food, a more or less dry place to sleep, but the towns and roads are full of other thieves.
The familiar world was made new, in the worst way, by the famine; Lynch makes it new again by his prose. His previous two novels, “Red Sky in Morning’’ and “The Black Snow,’’ gained him a strong reputation as a stylist, and from the opening words of “Grace’’ — “This flood October. And in the early light her mother goes for her, rips her from sleep, takes her from a dream of the world. She finds herself arm-hauled across the room . . .’’ — the reader understands that this is a novel in which the prose is going to be front and center.
Memorable phrases abound: Colly is “rivered with words,” a morning is “sleeved with blue-cold,” bread has a “buttery-licky smell.” For the most part Lynch’s muscular, vivid voice serves him and his material superbly. Just occasionally, when, for instance, Grace is once again in danger, did I long for the voice to be less intrusive, to simply let me see and hear what was happening.
The famine lasted nearly seven years; not until 1852 did the potato crop largely recover. By that time more than a million had died, and many more had emigrated. Not surprisingly “Grace’’ is a relentless novel, but Lynch allows his heroine a true complexity of feeling — about her brother, her mother, Bart, and what she sees happening around her — that allows the reader to empathize even as we wring our hands. “Grace’’ is not only a gripping tale about an appalling period in history — although that would be quite enough — but also, sadly, piercingly relevant; this year in East Africa 20 million people are facing starvation.
Grace by Paul Lynch
Little Brown, 354 pp., $26
Margot Livesey’s most recent novel, “Mercury,’’ was published in paperback in June. “The Hidden Machinery: Essays about Writing’’ will be published in July. She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.