Torn Water by John Lynch

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The Independent Culture

He dies with his father, he dies for his father, he dies for his mother. James himself is variously an Irish lord, a German general, an unborn child. Conn, in whatever guise, is always a hero. But these fecund and macabre fantasies begin to change when, on the night of a bomb blast near the border, James feels something like a firefly brush by him and catches sight of a figure in an alleyway, calm, pin-striped, untouched by the explosion. It must be Conn. So the deaths begin to assume the character of a correspondence: he and his father write to each other in James's thoughts. Conn reassures him, reproaches him for unbelief, and entertains him with tales of heaven: his new mate Errol Flynn, for example, flits about so manically only because he fears that the heavenly bureaucrats might at any moment enquire what the hell (so to speak) he thinks he's doing up there.

It's as well that James's inner life is so rich, because the outer world is darkening daily. His ghostly sightings of Conn are not well received at home. His mother has decided to let the hated Sully move in. James flees to the west coast on a school trip, where he finds love. But his refusal to call home has terrible results. The death fantasies, paradoxically, are most moving when they are most whimsical. Some images are just brilliant; others are just right - an even greater achievement. Describing a crust that has formed over his body because of hives, James reflects "that if a secret wore skin it would look something like this''.

There is perhaps a little too much imagery. "It feels as if...'' is a formula that starts to grate. And a tale of this intensity really doesn't need the air of morbid portentousness that use of the present tense almost always entails. Lynch lines his protagonist's path with a shade too many brusquely indulgent uncle figures, forever grinning and winking and patting him on the back. The book's distinctively Irish lyricism is occasionally offset by Oirishness: the novel wouldn't be complete - would it? - without some pervy priest enquiring earnestly about James's night-time vices. The final revelations about his father, though affecting, are anticlimactic.

Torn Water is undoubtedly a slighter book than is suggested by the opening pages. But once you blow away the cobwebbed motifs, you find a tale of great delicacy and originality, in which the fierce intensity of adolescence and, even more, the paranoia and yearning of childhood are evoked with precision, grace and overwhelming conviction.

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