Let it Sing - Jamie O'Neill's At Swim Two Boys
20th November 2003
I'm at home sick, but in an acceptable sort of way. My head's clear enough to read, and as I keep waking in the night I pick up a book for companionship.
The book is Jamie O'Neill's At Swim Two Boys. It appeared to trumpets of grand reviews but had lingered on my bookshelf a while. The Joycean wordplay of the prologue was not something I fancied for 600+ pages. In fact the prologue is separate, and the book breathes warmth and delight from page one proper.
The range of characters is motley, yet they all glow in their way. Life is a travail, and they are human. The book creates words that bob along so easily, such as 'ladlorn' for a waitress whose true love was a soldier out in Flanders. It's refreshing to find myself a novel that sings so freely, with prose that lilts. Simple descriptions, such as of a washerwoman walking her load, merge people and nature in a wonderful way. The book comes with fresh perceptions too - I had never thought that when we think we smell the sea on land what we are smelling is the land, for out at sea the smell is different. Of course the smell is what is conjured when the land and the sea merge, and this book is filled with such conjurings - the merging od people, society, and nature.
Normally when I find myself praising a book while reading it, I grow suspicious. It's as though I am out to convince myself - for when we speak it is often to convince ourselves of something that is not actually true. I praise a book just before putting it down and giving up on it. I can't see that happening here - the book is the world in which I am living just now. And I am liking the way the book is rubbing off on me. In the novel I am writing, I've a character the same age as the two boys at swim in this one. My boy is angry in a sick world in which nature is ailing. That's fine, but anger is tiring. I find he's now focusing his anger much more, while finding space to come up with scraps of compassion and runs of eloquence. Whatever the horrors of the external world, the world of a novel is seen from the inside of the characters. We do not only see the world through their eyes, it's transformed for us as they take it in. It is their nature that gives the novel's world its life - when characters experience life, it is like the land and the sea conjuring sensations in the air. A book becomes a joy to read when we are happy to be inside that character's experience.
Jamie O'Neill is teaching me that. He's doing my character good all round. It's easy to read praised heaped on younger writers and grow sullen and envious, thinking it underserved. Instead I'm clean of envy and replete with thanks, sure he hasn't been praised nearly enough. More power to his elbow, and the astonishing larkrise of his talent.