Nothing on Earth: a kind of ghost story on a ghost estate

But the novel, as in all good ghost stories, is also about a state of mind, in particular the state of mind of the person who tells us his part of the story

But the novel, as in all good ghost stories, is also about a state of mind, in particular the state of mind of the person who tells us his part of the story. Or is he a sexual predator? Should we trust this priest, Conor O’Callaghan seems to be asking. A rootless half-life roaming ghost estates

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As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house. It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. But O’Callaghan turns it into a metaphor, and then like all great fiction, he pursues the metaphor to its logical conclusion. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt? That’s where the reader comes in. Eileen Battersby interviews Conor O’Callaghan at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Wednesday, April 26th, at 7.30pm. It will be available as a podcast on April 30th. Nothing on Earth was released in paperback last month by Black Swan Ireland, priced £7.99. This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. Should we trust any priest? Nothing on Earth is his first novel

We see the events through the governess’s eyes. The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. My novel’s roots? Photograph: Eve O’Callaghan

It seems to me that Nothing on Earth, among other tropes, explores the position of the priest in Irish society. Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. Nothing on Earth is a kind of a ghost story, but not in the obvious way. Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge. Conor O’Callaghan lives in Manchester. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call. In this novel, the ghost estate is haunting and haunted. The place literally swallows them. Should we trust any priest? These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers. However, it can be purchased for only €4.99 if bought with a copy of The Irish Times in any branch of Eason until April 14th This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals

In that, there are obvious comparisons to be made with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career. The novel is as much about this unnamed narrator’s perceptions as it is about the confusingly named characters who move in – and out – of the ghostly ghost estate. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child – are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. So is he, like the governess in James’ classic, in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? It becomes a liminal space into which and from where people disappear, without explanation. “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”

Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. The first-person narrator in Nothing on Earth is crucial to the reading of the novel. Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration? And all that is left are vague ghostly impressions. The only mystery that’s solved – and most of the narrative strands in the novel are determinedly not resolved – is that the narrator is a priest and that by the end of the novel he is a broken man. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. It is as if they are alone in the world, once parched and now drenched. But by what? The atmosphere of this novel – that strange tropical weather, the bleak and banal world of mini-marts, people-carriers, and builders’ Portakabins like the altered props in a convincing dream – is eerily persistent. Here is what we know. The novel is set on a ghost estate – a physical location that we have become familiar with over the past decade. Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces. Is he a “good” priest? He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence.”

Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him? Mary Morrissy is a novelist and short story writer; her latest collection, Prosperity Drive, has just been released in paperback. Perhaps because it’s the only certainty in the narrative. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? He is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her. – “I will not be the man they want me to be. Almost everything else in this novel begs a question.