We Are Not In The World by Conor O’Callaghan: The unbearableness of loss

Cover imageGiven that it was praised to the skies by the likes of Donal Ryan and John Banville, I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Conor O’Callaghan’s debut, Nothing on Earth, but I did. Fortunately, We Are Not In The World caught my eye on Twitter, looking very much up my literary alley. O’Callaghan’s novel takes his readers on a journey into the mind of a man attempting to escape an unbearable reality.

Our narrator is crossing the Channel, finally taking advantage of the HGV licence he never expected to use. His friend has entrusted him with his truck under instructions to check in with his colleague Carl to arrange pickups and drop-offs but our narrator has other plans, taking himself off grid, ignoring texts from his brother, his ex-lover and Carl. As he journeys through France, he talks to his sassy, brittle daughter – unkempt, painfully thin and his constant companion. It’s been years since he and her mother split, their daughter already excruciatingly aware that she fit neither in Ireland, where she was born and visited every summer, nor in America where she grew up. That distress was worsened by the photographs published online which seemed to reappear despite all attempts to delete them until a crisis was reached. Her father is no better off, revisiting his painfully dysfunctional relationship with his mother and the broken six-year affair with the woman whose texts implore him to respond to her. She, it seems, still cares deeply for this lost man. As Carl’s texts become more urgent, our narrator understands that he can no longer run away.

Six years I went, a wind-up toy in someone else’s wardrobe, waiting to be taken out and played with.

This extraordinarily powerful novel is not an easy one to write about. Often a little disorientating, and deliberately so as we explore the disorder of a mind buckling under the strain of dreadful loss, much of O’Callaghan’s narrative is oblique. Small shocks are delivered, puzzling gaps filled as our narrator unfolds his story alternating with his ex-lover’s account of their affair. It’s a style which takes some getting used to – the second-person narrative of the ex-lover’s sections in particular – but it’s extremely effective, emphasising our narrator’s febrile state. O’Callaghan’s writing is striking – sometimes visceral, sometimes haunting but always assured. An impressive piece of fiction, then. Thought-provoking and often harrowing, it ends on a note of much-needed hope.

Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526854 276 pages Hardback

10 thoughts on “We Are Not In The World by Conor O’Callaghan: The unbearableness of loss”

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this Susan – I loved it – and it is one of the few books I have read twice in quick succession! I think O’Callaghan is a really beautiful writer and creates wonderful atmosphere.

  2. “Small shocks are delivered, puzzling gaps filled as our narrator unfolds his story alternating with his ex-lover’s account of their affair.” This part of your review, in particular, makes me feel like this would be a perfect match for my reading taste too. And, as to your initial comment, isn’t it amazing how often we DO miss books, even from the mainstream publishers with their massive (relatively speaking, anyway) publicity budgets?! So often I come across a rec, click through to see the publisher, expecting it to be a smaller one, only to find PRH or HC or one of the other biggies. (I guess we can’t say exactly where that count is now, but it’s ever shifting down to 1.)

    1. I think this one would interest you. My experience from both bookselling and reviews editor days tells me that the huge budgets are invested in a tiny section of publishers’ lists. You often have to dig deep for the more interesting titles.

  3. This sounds intriguing and very skilfully done. Possibly a little too disorientating for my tastes. given where we are right now in the world – but, as ever, I appreciate your insightful review. 🙂

  4. My sister got this for my birthday present, having read an Irish Times review, and I read it yesterday in a state of post-Vaccine febrile bedrest…Totally agree with your review.
    The book is so well written and so sad – the dialogue scenes were pure Beckett – and the sense of loss and breakdown were very poignant. He weaved all the threads together masterfully. The only bit I was not convinced by was the 6 year relationship with the unnamed woman – it was the thread that didn’t ring as true for me as all the others.

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