book review: Himself by Jess Kidd


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.

8 thoughts on “book review: Himself by Jess Kidd

  1. I have this sitting on my shelf so it’s good to read your thoughts on it! I struggle with magical realism sometimes too. I’ve found it works better for me in short stories, as we’re generally only getting to glimpse at a character’s life anyway, and as such, we aren’t required to suspend our disbelief for as long. I haven’t read that many full length novels that implement it, and even fewer that do so successfully, so I’ll be interested to see how I get on with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t wait to hear your thoughts! That’s a good point about the suspension of disbelief… when the story goes on for so long you kind of expect there to be some eventual explanation, even if that’s not The Point. This just reminded me that I really need to read Jen Campbell’s collection soon. I want to test your short story hypothesis because I don’t think I’ve actually read a magical realism short story, so my current dislike stems solely from novels…

      Liked by 1 person


      If you’re in the habit of DNFing I’d say just go for it and if it’s not doing it for you after a couple of chapters just quit. But if not… I legit cannot decide if you’d find it enchanting or dull. It has a rly high rating on GR tho and most of my friends who’ve read it seem to have loved it??

      Liked by 1 person

      • Imma skip I think. So many good books in the world to waste reading something you seem so ambivalent on tbh. Besides I need to get thru A Little Life first so I can destroy my life and get your copy back to you!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good call tbh, I’m always like ‘I should read this book that I probably won’t like because WHAT IF I DO????’ but you are probably onto something being more discerning about your TBR, I should give that a try.

        YASSS I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on A Little Life!!!


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