The Naming of Eliza Quinn, by Carol Birch

Fairies, famine and a hunger for the hidden truth
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The Independent Culture

In 1969, an American woman named Beatrice Conrad comes to a remote part of Co. Kerry to refurbish a house inherited from her grandmother. Kildarragh, beyond Lissadoon, is the townland which stands as a testament to evil days, with its tumbled ruins, relics of the famine, and an indefinable atmosphere of bygone suffering. Beatrice's house, known as Darby's, is one of only two that remain habitable, and it contains several mysteries. Who was Darby? And whose are the bones, poignant and child-sized, unearthed by Beatrice from the bole of a hollow tree?

In Carol Birch's novel, these and other matters are the subject of an investigation by Beatrice, which takes her so far - until the excavation takes off in its own right. The narrative then slips back in time: to 1900 first of all, and then further, to the years of potato-crop failure and consequent devastation, and to the origins of bad blood between two families, the Veseys - Beatrice's ancestors - and the Quinns.

In 1900, Beatrice's Granma Lizzie makes an appearance as a self-willed and flirtatious girl of 17, whose father's embargo on the man of her choice has repercussions. To understand his reasons, we need to revisit Lizzie's father's childhood in the 1840s, when Kildarragh existed as a closely-knit community of fishermen and farmers. Bleak but precariously self-sufficient, it gives a role to every inhabitant - even if the shadow of the rent-collector, answering to the agent who answers to the landlord, looms forebodingly. Starvation and eviction will see the annihilation of this community, with many others.

Lizzie's father, a boy of five when the famine begins to bite, is the only child of Eliza Vesey, unofficial midwife and herbalist. This competent woman is suspected by some of dealings with "the gentry" (the fairies): a circumstance that perhaps enables her to spot changeling characteristics in a neighbour's odd-looking child. We are reminded of the power of folk beliefs in localities only imperfectly imbued with a spirit of Catholicism. As Eliza goes about her alleviating business, forces are massing beyond anyone's control, with which small local hostilities and resentments get intertwined.

Eliza's story unfolds through the worst years of the famine, when fever finished off a good many who survived the ravages of hunger. It ends with a hallucinatory journey towards Cork city, along roads thronged with famine victims. It's a nightmare scenario, vividly imagined.

Birch shows a singular grasp of the strangeness of the past, along with its ordinariness. Holding the two in a kind of equilibrium is one of the novel's strongest achievements. With the 20th-century story, a wheel comes full circle, and a tardy resolution is effected. Only a couple of infelicities mar this book: a girl child would not be called a "gossun", which comes from the Irish for a young boy; and Eliza, in the throes of a fever, would not have snatches of "The Gartan Mother's Lullaby" running through her head. This song was written by Joseph Campbell, who was not born until 1879.

With its imaginative density and elegance of style, The Naming of Eliza Quinn is a polished and engrossing novel about the power of the past. That past leaves a residue of provocations, "like the marks of the famine coming through the landscape".

Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury