Seth Cullen killed a dog when he was eight…
I kept clear of Dog Cullen. Till the summer we turned seventeen, the summer the dolphin came to Ross Bay. That summer I looked in Dog Cullen’s eyes – one green, one blue – and I forgot to walk away.
Once upon a time, in the green and salad days of my impressionable youth I was drawn to mythology – no surprise really, considering the mythic nature of much of my ongoing reading preferences – and to Irish mythology in particular. Tír na nÓg, and the Tuatha Dé Danann; the Gods Lugh and Manannán mac Lir, the Morrígan, the Dagda. The hero Cú Chulainn who, having killed Cullan the Smith’s hound offers to take its place.
I loved when that childish excitement popped into my university course. And, of course, Cú Chulain was a potent symbol of Irish independence and crept into and through W. B. Yeats’ poetry on whom I wrote my first ever dissertation.
None of this was necessary pre-knowledge to enjoy this Carnegie Medal short listed novel, but it added a delightful spice to my reading. Because what we have here is a retelling of the Táin Bó Cúailnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, but set in a small seaside town in 1970s Ireland, sweltering in the hottest summer in memory in 1976 when
temperatures soared across Europe, even Ireland was coloured red on the weatherman’s nightly map. We wore t-shirts and shorts every single day. We slept with every window wide open. The tarmac melted, there was water-rationing. It was a summer like the summers in movies and Ireland was flipping Italy. With time it has become a legendary summer, so using it as the setting for a reimagining of an Irish legend was a natural fit.Marie-Louise Fitpatrick, Faber
And that setting, Carrig Cove, at that time in history was inspired. The sense of limitations on the characters – the smallness of their lives bounded by their parents and religion and sectarianism – but on the cusp of modernity and liberation was beautifully judged. The marriage between that mythic and the modern is a tricky one to negotiate, but Fitzpatrick managed it wonderfully and the novel works on a range of levels.
If we look at plot, the inciting incident is the arrival of a dolphin – later dubbed Rinn – into Carrig Cove and discovered by Fee, Emer’s best friend, and her brother Rory. As Fee and Rory bring Emer to the beach, they are joined by Dog Cullen and Kit Crosby and the dolphin and their joy at the sight of him creates a strong bond between them. When Rinn becomes more public property – attracting tourists and converting fishing boats to boat tours – the five continue to meet and commune with Rinn at midnight. It is a gorgeous symbol, the ocean and the dolphin, symbols perhaps of a freedom that the children crave and which seems an impossible aspiration from their small town. And it is Emer, who is perhaps the most bound to the village ship run by her father, who forms a close bond with Rinn.
Just as the novel teeters on the point of sentimentality, the rivalry between Carrig Cove and the neighbouring town of Ross starts to bring in tension which mounts and mounts as the novel progresses – a rivalry which starts to focus on the dolphin Rinn. Ross’s moonlight attempt to steal Rinn – the cattle raid, re-imagined – and Emer and Dog’s rescue of him, with the fishermen of Carrig Cove was a wonderful setpiece and would look gorgeous on screen!
Alongside the five main characters, there are gangs of boys in both Ross and Carrig Cove – the boy-troops of Irish mythology perhaps – which felt a little contrived. Were kids really so unfettered by adult supervision in the 1970s? But I was more than willing to forgive that, primarily because they were in the background. Our two narrators, Emer and Gus were outside the gangs: Emer, on account of being female; Gus on account of having moved – defected – from Carrig Cove to Ross.
Dog, similarly, was separate from the gangs: he was not part of the Carrig boys, but the force of his personality and his presence was respected by them and they deferred to him.
And, my God, he was a wonderful character! Fitzpatrick manages to keep him deeply enigmatic, simultaneously a sensitive and tender character whose feelings for Emer had a purity, and also capable of great violence. The opening scene in the Prologue – the killing of Rashers, the butcher’s dog – was pretty brutal, and killing dogs in novels remains a divisive and risky tactic as an introduction to a novel; and the violence of which he is capable – for those familiar with the celtic mythology, the ríastrad – is clearly there and the combat scenes, of which there are several, are unflinchingly described. Both the tenderness and violence I found totally convincing at both a human and a mythological level.
And the setting of the novel was dealt with so carefully: the 1970s were the heart and heat of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday taking place in 1972 and the Ross-Carrig rivalry could have become a clumsy metaphor for that conflict. Instead, Fitzpatrick just dropped in subtle and quiet reminders of the Troubles – fireworks set off as a distraction at one point
was a damn clever diversion. The Ross kids obviously thought they were under some sort of paramilitary attack and went into blind panic.
Similarly, the Irish Government’s refusal to permit contraception and the impact that had on women and the female experience was referenced by Fee’s demanding that Kit
did a trip across the border to buy some johnnies.
And the fear and anxiety caused to Fee and Emer by the policing of their own bodies and sexuality – the fear of being branded a “slut” was a powerful undercurrent in what could have been a very male oriented novel.
This is my first read of the Carnegie shortlist, and it was a great way to start!
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 320
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Date: 2nd April 2020