The Black Snow: A Novel

The Black Snow

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind.

This historical novel is set in 1945. Barnabas has returned to Ireland after a gig at iron-working in the States where he met his wife. His dream was to nurture and tend to the land as his people had done before him.

Eskra patiently gives Barnabas time to heal while soldiery as many of the farm duties as she can. But at one point, she demands that he get out of his bed and at least bury the stinking cattle that are being consumed by pesky vultures.

The Black Snow is about starting over again after a great tragedy when your life is being consumed by guilt. It also tells the story of a proud man who needs to ask his neighbors for help to get back on his feet.  And many of those neighbors feel antagonistic toward him and blame him for Matthew’s death. Meanwhile Barnabas’s son has a dark secret that he dares not share.

The pace of the book is slow, yet Lynch’s writing is both powerful and lyrical. As one reviewer said, “Paul Lynch takes the pastoral novel and – with the calmest of hands – tears it apart.”

Another good book about an Irish family, that focuses on fathers and sons, is The Infinities by John Banville.