The pacing through the story is dramatic and deliberate: “His boots went savage with the stairs, a shudder down to the foundations, a skip over the fourth step from the top, which always made the noisiest creak.” Gilligan plots her movement with care: readers have only the amount of knowledge required to sustain discomfort and uncertainty. If you want an answer, an explanation for the “jagged borderline drawn between ‘before’ and ‘after’” as the story unfolds between 1996 and 2018, you must hang onto right ‘til the end.
The 21st-century line is brief and crafted to raise and resolve specific concerns, so be prepared to travel back. For some characters, “most of the past was out of bounds”. One studies mythology and specifically “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, part of the Irish Ulster Cycle, which fits with this story of eight men who travel the country to butcher according to prescribed rituals. And, for others, the relationship between past and present is vital and transformative: “thanks to the Brexit talks and the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, the Irish border is suddenly back ‘in vogue’”.
In one sense, this is a distinctly Irish tale: “But the way Ùna thought about it, without folklore and traditions, surely Ireland didn’t really exist? Surely it might as well just be England or France or anywhere else (give or take an endless soak of rain)?”
In another, there are universal truths and challenges: “Because she knew women sometimes used men too; knew, in the end, that was all bodies were really for.”
This story about home and mortality, belonging and belief raises just enough questions to keep readers turning the pages and resolves them in such a way that you can simply close the book and move on, or you can mull over the unanswerable bits, like this: “But how could she tell him that what we believe and what we assume and what we know are never really the same?”