A few years back I read The Gathering by Anne Enright and it put me off Irish writers for a while. Silly, I know, but I hated that book. John The Revelator, however, just could bring me back into the fold–what a book. Bottom line: Read it! But only if you like to think about what you read. Should your book club read it? I think so, yes. There’s loads to discuss–again, only if your group likes to think and will make an effort to dig into the layers of this gem.
Yes, it is a gem. With multiple facets. One facet is the coming-of-age narrative of John Devine, who lives with his mother in a small village in Ireland. Their relationship is what anchors John and what, in my opinion, also anchors the book. John’s mom cleans all the houses in the village and tries to keep her son clean and on the straight and narrow with the good guidance of the bible. She is occasionally helped, whether she likes it or not, by their know-it-all neighbor, Mrs. Nagle. The love John’s mom has for him is palpable, wafting through the cigarette fog that surrounds her. (Like any decent Irish novel there’s lots of drinking and smoking.)
Another facet is the relationship John has with his new found friend, James Corboy, “a self-styled Rimbaudian boy wonder.” James experiences life like John never has, and then writes stories about it. The question is, are the stories true? Story-telling, in fact, plays a big role in this book. The Irish are known for their talent at this, right?, and John loves to hear the tales others tell him. And what about the Catholic Church? It tells some whoppers, doesn’t it? A great book club discussion could be about the novel’s exploration of story-telling, writing, and where the truth lies.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that nothing happens in this book, that it is, as I read someone say about it, just a bunch of stories or anecdotes strung together. It is far from that. James Corboy’s writing, which are quite revelatory to both John and the reader, move the plot merrily along, but they also add much depth and meaning to the novel as a whole.
Speaking of writing, that is another facet of this gem; it is superbly poetic at times. John suffers from horrible dreams, and the descriptions are wonderfully weird, full of symbolism and metaphor. Great stuff for your book club to dig into. Hmm…James Corbey. Initials JC. Significant? My suspicion is that if you were raised Catholic, you will love this book! There’s lots of fodder for a discussion about religion here. There is also a crow who plays a large role in John nightmares. Hmm…there was a rather important crow in The Twin, which I reviewed here. What’s up with the crows?
All these facets combine to dazzle the reader–this is one of those books that I didn’t want to put down, and I looked forward to curling up with it. Don’t get me wrong, though–it’s not a ripping page-turner. It’s surprisingly dense and it forces the reader to slowly savor it. Honestly, it is like holding a gem in your hands–you should really examine it, turning it over to appreciate all its sides, all its splendor.
John The Revelator is on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Award Literary Award, and I have high hopes for it. According to the book jacket, this is Peter Murphy’s debut novel. I can’t wait for more from him!