HIMSELF by Jess Kidd
Atria Books, 2017
I had two very conflicting instincts about approaching this book: a contemporary mystery set in small-town Ireland sounds ridiculously relevant to my literary interests, and magical realism is something I try to avoid at all costs. Still, I thought I’d give it a shot and hope my love of Irish lit would prevail. Instead I think my dislike of magical realism won out.
Here’s what I don’t like about this genre. (I realize this is a blanket statement and that there are exceptions – I can even think of some myself. But, just talking generally.) I feel like a lot of magical realism arbitrarily includes magical or supernatural elements to force a certain tone or atmosphere onto the story, but rather than being integrated into the framework of the narrative, these elements feel more like awkward accessories.
What I mean is: in Himself, the main character, Mahoney, sees dead people. There are ghosts on almost every page of this book, and there’s an air of mysticism about the fictional town of Mulderrig. Consequently, I want to call this book ‘creepy’ or ‘eerie’ or even ‘whimsical,’ but, was it really any of those things? It was sort of a hollow story. Mahoney, orphaned from a young age, returns to his hometown at the age of 26 to find out the truth of what happened to his mother. A lot of tedium and forgettable characters ensue, and the story lacked an engaging emotional core to draw you in. I just didn’t care, and the ghosts didn’t do it any favors, because they didn’t really do anything – even the ones that I thought would play a larger role in the narrative ultimately did not – so I guess they’re just there to make the book seem creepier than it actually is.
So, why 3 stars? It’s more like 2.5 rounded up, but, Jess Kidd’s prose is stunning. This book was beautifully, brilliantly written, and when it’s so clearly a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ I feel compelled to be generous in my rating. If you like mysteries and contemporary Irish lit as much as I do but you are kinder to magical realism, there’s a good chance you’ll love this. Maybe you’ll get more out of the ghosts than I did.