Kilbrack

Jackets and blurbs ...
The original 1990 edition ...
Reading Group Guide ...

Some notes from the author ...

Reviews ...
A review of the original 1990 edition, from the Literary Review UK

Read an extract: Chapter Five: Nighttime in Kilbrack ...
Read a joke: of lesbians and avocados ...

Amazons ... should you choose to purchase.

Jamie O’Neill home
At Swim, Two Boys
Kilbrack
Disturbance
Short Stories
Journalism
Press!

Contact
Kilbrack home ...
clear
Reviews

“O’Neill again proves himself one of Ireland’s finest writers.”  Kirkus Reviews ... US

“O’Neill can cross genres at will – an epic tragedy here, a black comedy there; his large talent knows no bounds.”  Booklist ... US

“O’Neill’s recent At Swim, Two Boys drew lavish praise, and this earlier novel deserves similar accolades. Enthusiastically recommended for all libraries.”  Library Journal ... US

“The truths O’Leary and the denizens of this Irish hamlet are forced to acknowledge will provide a few chuckles. But more important, they will also give the reader cause to pause and perhaps question the idea of appearance versus reality.”  San Francisco Chronicle

“This richly comic tale is at once a satire of Irish popular novels and exemplar of the genre.”  Publishers Weekly ... US

“What this book demonstrates, with its subtle, teasing tone, its habit of subverting cosiness with sudden stabs of grotesquerie, is an awareness that you can show the myths of modern Ireland in happy tandem with the reality.”  Independent on Sunday ... UK

“O’Neill’s craft here is a delightful swirl of humor, loss and glowing hope as beautiful and lush as the green, fog-shrouded hills of Ireland.”  Metro Weekly ... DC

“A bagatelle of bucklepping fun.”  Irish Times


Kirkus Reviews
December 2003. * Starred review

The pastoral image of rural Ireland is roasted over a slow fire in this inventive black comedy, a 1990 novel by the Irish author of the 2002 critical success At Swim, Two Boys.

Protagonist O’Leary Montagu is a man who’s forgotten himself, after being nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver and having in effect been “born at the age of twenty-five” or thereabouts. We meet O’Leary as he’s traveling by train to the village of Kilbrack, memorialized in his favorite book, Ill Fares the Land, a memoir of its author Nancy Valentine’s idyllic childhood there. The book’s plaintive conclusion had led O’Leary to expect a ghost town; instead, he finds a reasonably bustling hamlet still occupied by Valentine’s characters.

Prominent among them are an intemperate pharmacist, a delusional spinster tavernkeeper, middle-aged unmarried male and female siblings, and widowed Charity Cuthbert, who hopes to prevent her beautiful, headstrong daughter Livia from becoming a nun by marrying the wicked girl off-even if it’s to maimed, addlepated O’Leary. We sense that our hero’s hopes to write Nancy Valentine’s biography may go for naught with the introduction of Mrs. Cuthbert’s distant cousin, elderly recluse Valentine Brack, who lives alone with his dog Nancy and compulsively scribbles tales of his disappointing life and times intended to prove his morose assertion that “History ends with me.”

O’Neill mixes these raffish elements expertly (throwing in for good measure a cupiditous Monsignor who’s after Charity Cuthbert’s property) in a roiling narrative that grows in depth and complexity even as its characters’ antics maintain its comic momentum. And there are hints of the Joycean dimensions of O’Neill’s later novel in the sure touch with which he makes the bewildered O’Leary a humble image of the wanderer reclaiming his history, the writer grappling with his material, and the son seeking his father.

O’Neill again proves himself one of Ireland’s finest writers.

top

Booklist
January 2004. * Starred review

Written more than a decade before the widely acclaimed epic At Swim, Two Boys, this exuberant comic fable is both highly amusing and surprisingly moving.

O’Leary Montague, a facially scarred amnesiac as the result of a car accident, travels to the Irish village of Kilbrack because it is the setting of his favorite novel, Ill Fares the Land, by Nancy Valentine. The small-town residents prove to be deeply eccentric, with habits ranging from button hoarding to cocaine addiction, so O’Leary, a veritable bundle of nervous tics and obsessions, fits right in. His desire to write a biography of the revered Nancy Valentine leads him to a hapless meeting with reclusive Valentine Brack, a still raffish if aging member of the landed gentry who harbors a terrible secret.

O’Neill sends up the rural Irish to a fare-thee-well, devoting paragraph after paragraph to the hidebound villagers’ convoluted conversations, so cryptic in tone that they inevitably lead to absurdly comic misunderstandings. While never slackening the antic pace, O’Neill deepens his narrative by making of the shambling, timorous O’Leary a change agent of revolutionary import. Soon enough, his story comes to signify the poignant search for one’s history and home.

O’Neill can cross genres at will – an epic tragedy here, a black comedy there; his large talent knows no bounds.

Selected for Reviews of the Month.

top

Library Journal
January 2004

In this grand, outrageous, and heartwarming work, Irish novelist O’Neill forcefully blends farce and slapstick with existential and absurdist drama, exploring the tortured complexities of family dynamics, Irish character and history, and sexual orientation along the way.

Protagonist O’Leary Montagu is a vulnerable, lovable, bumbling, neurotic Irishman who has struggled for 13 years to regain his memory after a near-fatal car accident. He has been sustained by a mysterious book titled Ill Fares the Land, an apparently self-published novel that depicts an idyllic childhood in the small town of Kilbrack. The novel so enthralls him-he has in fact read it 1,023 times – that he sets out for Kilbrack to meet the author. This action sets in motion a series of events that ultimately leads the long-suffering Montagu to recover his memory and his family.

O’Neill’s recent At Swim, Two Boys drew lavish praise (and comparisons to Joyce), and this earlier novel deserves similar accolades. Enthusiastically recommended for all libraries.

top

San Francisco Chronicle
February 8, 2004

Everyone is pretty much in agreement that O’Leary Montagu is a neurotic misfit. When a new acquaintance calls him a “dismal idiot,” the aspiring writer deems it a step up and a compliment of sorts. Badly scarred from a hit-and-run accident with no recollection of his life before the accident, the young man is convinced that fate is against him. As his story unfolds, it is left up to the reader, though, to determine whether the gods are to blame or O’Leary is his own worst enemy.

When he stumbles upon the self-published memoir of an obscure writer, Nancy Valentine, O’Leary becomes so obsessed with her story that he wants to write her biography. His research begins with a visit to Kilbrack, the village where his muse supposedly once lived. Here, O’Leary finds a group of misfits whose bizarre lives match his own sorry existence. He finds it difficult to track down the elusive Nancy Valentine, and his unexplained presence in the dilapidated village sets off an unexpected string of events. From a local priest who is out to corner the “hamburger market” to a wannabe pharmacist, everyone suffers from some strange or obsessive behavior. O’Leary, the mysterious stranger in their midst, triggers some odd and humorous reactions.

Quirky characters and witty dialogue have always been O’Neill’s strong suit, but in this novel he adds an interesting new psychological dimension. The antics of the residents of Kilbrack subtly mask the author’s investigation of illusion and self-delusion. It eventually becomes obvious that some key characters really do not exist, but others are living in a world that defies reality. The truths O’Leary and the denizens of this Irish hamlet are forced to acknowledge will provide a few chuckles. But more important, they will also give the reader cause to pause and perhaps question the idea of appearance versus reality.

top

Publishers Weekly
January 2004

Written a decade before Irish author O’Neill’s breakthrough novel At Swim, Two Boys, this richly comic tale is at once a satire of Irish popular novels and exemplar of the genre.

The book boasts a highly unusual hero, O’Leary Montagu, so named by the nurse who 11 years earlier found him, at age 25, facially scarred and wholly amnesiac after being struck by an automobile. Wracked by a host of strange compulsions, O’Leary is obsessed with an unpublished memoir he discovers, Ill Fares the Land by one Nancy Valentine, about her decaying hometown of Kilbrack and its endearingly odd inhabitants. After countless rereadings of the memoir (its title is rendered on O’Leary’s copy as Ill Farts the Land, one of many such embarrassing “misprints"), O’Leary finally decides he must visit Kilbrack and the author to write her biography. What he discovers in the supposedly abandoned Kilbrack isn’t at all what he expects.

The outrageous cast, nearly all of whom seem to be characters in the memoir, are hilarious, and O’Leary himself is a memorable addition to the roll of heroes of Irish literature, with his endearing tics and habits. Constantly making brief mental “diary memos,” he also clutches in his pocket his version of a security blanket (a mysterious “lemon jiffy") and waits five full minutes before entering a public toilet to be certain no one is inside. Only the crude homophobia of O’Leary’s father jars in this idyll of satiric nostalgia.

top

Independent on Sunday
London, March 16, 2003

What this book demonstrates, with its subtle, teasing tone, its habit of subverting cosiness with sudden stabs of grotesquerie, is an awareness that you can show the myths of modern Ireland in happy tandem with the reality.

O’Leary Montagu has been “born” at the age of 25, “a difficult age”. Having been hit by a car, he wakes up in a hospital with no memory of his previous life. An insatiably protective nurse, Mary, takes him on when the hospital kicks him out and soon comes to realise that his need to immerse himself in books is becoming pathological. One book in particular draws him: Ill Fares the Land, a memoir of one woman’s flight from her home town, Kilbrack. When Mary finally loses patience and goes back to Ireland to die, Montagu follows her, convinced both that she has faked her death and that in the real town of Kilbrack he will find the answer to the riddle of the author’s life.

He finds the town just as described in the book, and its inhabitants very much alive. But Nelly McGuire is a cocaine addict, Mrs Cuthbert killed her vicar husband, Bridie and her brother still sleep in the same bed, though both are now middle-aged. A queer place altogether. And is the author still living there? Not quite in the form imagined by Montagu.

top

Metro Weekly
Washington DC, March 3, 2004
Irish Charms. By Alex MacLennan

Amnesiacs, magpies, and crazy people – one magpie for sorrow, two magpies for mirth.... How does that nursery rhyme go?

Magpies are but one of the many nagging, evocative repetitions that abound and rebound in the wonderful, off-kilter Kilbrack by Jamie O’Neill. Words within sentences, lines within paragraphs, recurring combinations of phrases, objects, and looks echo with something – not always identifiable, but always resonant – that has come before.

O’Neill’s Ireland will be familiar to those readers taken by his gorgeous previous novel, At Swim, Two Boys, but will be fascinating for new readers as well. His novel is resonant with modern humor and lyricism, while steeped in Irish history.

Kilbrack is all these things, and this too: A detective story of discovery and memory, where both everything and nothing are as they seem.

The novel opens as “O’Leary Montagu closes his book ” – a beloved copy of the atrociously typo-ridden memoir Ill Fares the Land. O’Leary has read the memoir hundreds of times, and the novel’s opening scenes of a claustrophobic train car chugging toward the town of Kilbrack immediately establish an aching sensitivity, a devilish sense of humor, a keen eye for ridiculous human fallibility, and a definite sense that these characters are on a track that leads to a place they need to go.

O’Leary is a great literary creation. His voice is quirky and humorous, but with a mystery that suggests a depth of seriousness below the surface. Within the first few chapters, and before O’Leary has even spent any real time in Kilbrack, we know that he is an obsessive diarist, a constant observer and commentator, and a “reported “ criminal offender and sexual deviant with unexplained scars on his face. An unseen but seemingly indispensable character named Mary offers further hints to O’Leary’s past.

This is a detective story (writing memos and detective speak are two of O’Leary’s self-narrative tools), and the search seems to be for O’Leary’s soul.

That soul might just be found in Kilbrack, which has the feel of an Irish Brigadoon – a lost-town comprised of a few houses, an odd pharmacy and bar, the rectory and an abandoned church, and buildings holding onto just “a memory of paint.” All “surrounded by pastures, lush with the long green grass of Ireland. ” O’Neill’s descriptions are liltingly beautiful and funny, but Kilbrack itself is a town choking itself to death on isolation and fear.

The townsfolk are detailed with a poet’s eye and a humanist’s heart, and the story of O’Leary’s quest roams freely over and through the town and its denizens. O’Leary’s first night in town is related as a stunning series of quiet movements from home to home and mind to mind, where the novel’s subtitled namesake (Nancy Valentine) makes her first appearance.

O’Neill’s twisty, devilish humor dances across the turning pages with an almost gothic sensibility. The characters (chief among them Charity Cuthbert and her sardonic daughter Livia, the suspiciously manic Nellie Maguire, wiry old Bridie O’Toole, and a mysterious old man in a grandly decaying house on a hill) are unique in their madness but intricately linked. The narrative views them through the goggle-eyed vantage point of the bottom of a beer-wet pint.

Admittedly, after reading O’Neill’s brilliant, lyric At Swim, Two Boys, it’s impossible not to approach Kilbrack with a hopeful enthusiasm, and the novel does not disappoint. O’Neill’s craft here is a delightful swirl of humor, loss and glowing hope as beautiful and lush as the green, fog-shrouded hills of Ireland.

top