It takes only a few words to turn Denny Cullen’s life upside-down: ‘Ma’s gone. Jesus Denny, yeh have to come home.’ And it takes only a few pages for Trevor Byrne to establish himself as a writer who needs to be read. In that first chapter, Denny makes a hasty return to Dublin, leaving his life in Wales behind; the fragmented second-person impressions of the city, interspersed with the chatter of the twerp from the bus whom he’d rather ignore, convey brilliantly Denny’s sense of numbness at his abrupt loss and return.
The rest of Ghosts and Lightning is told in first-person, in Denny’s Dublin vernacular. It does feel a little awkward, structurally, that the initial ‘frame’ is never returned to; but this is a minor gripe when set against the way thaat the narration brings Denny to life as a character. More than that, actually, I’d say it comes to symbolise Denny’s situation — unable to leave his old life behind, just as his accent will go with him wherever he goes.
Not that Denny’s going anywhere right now. ‘I’m runnin and gettin nowhere at the same time,’ he says. ‘I remember feelin, when I first left for Wales, that I was in control. And I feel anythin but in control now.’ He’s stuck: no job, no transport of his own, living in his mother’s old house with his sister Paula (who has let the place go to seed), estranged from his brothers (one of whom legally owns the house, and may threaten eviction), friends mixed up in drugs… The list goes on. Ghosts and Lightning is a chronicle of how Denny tries to navigate his way through all this.
If all that sounds like hard going, rest assured it is not. The use of vernacular gives the telling an energy that keeps one reading, and there are some nicely amusing scenes along the way (such as when Denny goes to buy a clapped-out old car from his brother, and it turns out to be full of chickens).
However, Byrne’s novel has a serious heart, and is especially concerned (I feel) with how we may try to deal with tragic events, like the death of a close relative. One of the themes that really stands out for me is that of using stories to give shape to life. In Denny’s rather desperate words: ‘Stories though, man. The way they work on yeh. They’re a kind o spell, aren’t they? Or a prayer, maybe, some o them. An article of faith. How the fuck else can yeh make sense o things, like? […] There has to be meanin.’
But must there? Ghosts and Lightning is (deliberately, I think) somewhat episodic in structure, its chapters feeling like a series of anecdotes; and it demonstrates how life’s uneven edges are usually smoothed off to create fiction. One sees this, too, in the way Bryne deploys supernatural and mythical concepts. Denny and other characters frequently refer to such things: most prominently, Paula thinks there’s a ghost haunting the house; but there’s also that last quotation above, and many other examples. Yet none of it turns out to be real, nor does it really feel as though Byrne wants us to entertain the possibility — rather, I see it as another manifestation of stories not working in the real world.
If there are problems with Ghosts and Lightning, I think they’re artefacts of the episodic structure to which I referred above. Maybe the plot is not as tight as one might wish, but that’s probably the point. And the structure sets up a particular rhythm of reading that (for me) lessens the impact of some of the shifts in tone (they become one small jolt among many).
However, these are easily ouwteighed by all the good things about the novel. I haven’t yet elaborated on Byrne’s sharp observation of charatcter. Take, for example, this description of two ‘old women obsessed with the clergy’, who attend a funeral: ‘two pious vultures, their eyes filled with gleeful sorrow.’ Or the comment about Denny’s brother’s wife, who insisted they erect a satellite dish because ‘she didn’t want people assumin she hadn’t the money for cable TV.’
Places, too, are strikingly described, with Denny suggesting that Ireland has issues of its own to work through: ‘We’re a shoddy country ourselves too, full o guilt and doubt and hidden nastiness. It’s just that, given a possibly brief period o financial well-bein, we happen to scrub up well.’ Denny and his country might, then, be seen as being in analogous situations. During the course of Ghosts and Lightning, we see the difficulties that both have — and, by novel’s end, that there may be a way forward for both. It’s a realistically optimistic end to a fine first novel.