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Generally speaking, the Irish novel is a shifting yet clearly distinct beast. It is often rich in prose, plastered with misery and dripping black comedy, creating a cocktail potent enough to have you laughing, recoiling and tearful by the end of the page, but still, gasping for more. The Wild Laughter is very much a cocktail composed of these elements, cementing itself as an extremely Irish piece with an idiosyncratic and contemporary voice.
The Wild Laughter is the sophomore novel by acclaimed writer and poet Caoilinn Hughes. One of the many novels of 2020 deprived of a physical book launch, this lockdown release takes place in Co Roscommon after the economic crash of 2008. The story is narrated by Doharty ‘Hart’ Black, the younger of two sons to a potato farmer, Manus Black, known to his children as the Chief. The Chief serves as the glue which holds the family unit together, and when his health begins to decline in the wake of financial ruin, the lives of the family are left in turmoil.
Hughes’ background as a poet shines throughout the novel as she twists and warps the English language at will to capture the voices of her characters. Brothers Hart and Cormac nurse a toxic relationship which bubbles and boils over at times into acts of violence and small cruelties. Cormac, two years Hart’s senior, is favoured by both his father and mother, Nora. Bright and sharp, he has secured himself a third level education and has founded a number of successful start-ups in the country’s capital. In contrast, Hart at twenty-five has remained at home to aid his father on the farm. His one superior feature is his good looks, a department in which Cormac is apparently lacking:
The face was rationed, it must be said, but there’s not a body with everything. Part t-rex, part pelican. Picture that menace of features.
The Chief suffered unconceivable financial loss through failed investment in foreign property. He proceeds then, despite his deteriorating health, to throw himself into his work in an attempt to quell the financial burden he has brought upon the land and his family. As his terminal illness takes its hold over his body, tensions between the two brothers temporarily dissipate as the pair are forced to work in unison to carry out their dying father’s final wish; to die peacefully of his own accord.
Dark and deceptive, the narrative delves into numerous passages of barbarity and grotesque violence, including the slaughtering of young lambs in an act of spiteful vengeance and a harrowing confession scene involving the local priest and fantastic subversion of stereotypes. Such scenes bring to mind the earlier theatre work of Martin McDonagh which thrived on violence and also housed characters with psychotically low levels of empathy. Much like McDonagh, these scenes are balanced by dark humour and Hughes even manages to capture rupturing moments of tenderness nestled between the brutality and comedy.
Hughes excels in immersing readers in the lives of characters which are not altogether likeable but are nonetheless engaging. Hart may be misunderstood but he is self-centred and troubled at best. Cormac is downright narcissistic. Nora, a former nun, appears austere and at times incapable of maternal affection. For this is certainly how Hart perceives it as he outlines how:
she had no such experience of love or comfort to draw from, and she seemed embarrassed to be the stand-in adult in my fantasy
Yet in spite of this, we are also supplied with slivers of humanity shown to each other throughout (and particularly towards the Chief) which allow readers to empathise and emotionally engage with these characters and their respective troubles.
From time to time, the style of prose may prove difficult for widespread interpretation. Lines like “Slugger has me stalking the jungle like a filthy Black and Tan” and “acting the gom” will likely be lost on a certain percent of readership though they will chime loudly with other readers familiar with the colloquialisms.
Nevertheless, Hughes’ inventive exploration (and manipulation) of Hiberno-English plays a significant role in capturing local vernacular. The narrative also strays slightly in the final quarter and loses its clear set direction. This slight unravelling can perhaps be seen as mirroring Hart’s own deteriorating mental state as he loses grip on his surroundings. For a finish, neither we as readers nor Hart as a protagonist can deduce if he is still intoxicated. His few proactive relationships are also strained, as stories are miscued and tangled while the framework for the Black family gradually collapses in upon itself.
The Wild Laughter is nothing if not original. It takes a tale of woe familiar to many and twists the knife deeper, without ever feeling heavy handed or overwhelming the reader. Its influences appear vast, with whispers of McGahern along with Falkner’s darkly comic As I Lay Dying. One of the greatest compliments that can be paid is that The Wild Laughter is decisively subversive and a far from being sentimental. The work is both tender and tough, audacious and fluid. With young writers such as Hughes emerging, there’s comfort in knowing despite uncertainty in everyday life, the Irish novel, at least, is in safe and capable hands.