Enormous dinner portions served up with a side of another portion and a distinct lack of high-chase pursuits have rendered Garda PJ Collins overweight and underworked. The only guard in a sleepy village in West Cork, where, predictably, nothing ever happens, he’s a breakfast roll away from a heart attack and not much inclined to stop that from happening. Single and bored, his only excitement is steering the crowds during particularly large funerals. So when a labourer on the building site that was once the old Burke farm informs him that bones, human bones, have been unearthed he does what any self-respecting officer of the peace would do and heads off to investigate, with a long-forgotten spring in his step.
While PJ welcomes this cause for excitement, there is a number in the village for whom the discovery opens up old wounds, and would be better off without the unearthing of secrets long buried with the bones. Speculation is soon rife that the skeleton belong to young farmer Tommy Burke, the last in his line and whose land is now being upturned to develop a slick new housing estate. He had disappeared without a trace some 20 odd years ago, devastating more than one female admirer from the small town. A reluctant fiancé to Brid with a keener eye on local beauty Evelyn, Tommy may have had more than one reason to flee his home-town, but with the discovery of these bones it seems that someone else may have preferred him to stay, dead or alive.
While Guard PJ is the anchor of the story, going about his investigative duties with an able if inexperienced enthusiasm, his persons of interest are an ensemble that all have much more going on beneath the surface than they’d have the rest of the villagers believe. Brid is now married to someone else, living a life fuelled by white wine and bitterness, Evelyn is one of three spinster sisters who never got round to leaving the family home. Each of the three; PJ, Brid and Evelyn are joined by a common thread – loneliness – and it’s this unlikely triangle that steers the plot along to its unexpected conclusion.
Holding is a great first novel by Graham Norton. The author, known better as a much loved TV personality, is himself from a small hamlet in West Cork, and skilfully evokes the atmosphere of small, confining town life. Having written two previous non-fiction works it was a surprise to many when this one was announced, and even more of a surprise when it was revealed to be a thoughtful, well-observed, beautifully written, darkly comic tale of isolation, misplaced enmity and hopelessness. Dreams of a life better lived take up much of the villagers time, from PJ’s housekeeper Mrs. Meany, fated to serve gargantuan meals to parish priests and superintendents after a horrifying teenage incident to the supervising Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne, married to the job with a wife and new baby inconveniently on the side.
Anyone who’s ever watched Graham Norton on the small screen will know he has a quick wit and a way with words, which are amply displayed in his debut. He deftly fleshes out the numerous characters, avoiding sterotypes and treating each one with compassion and kindness, despite their myriad flaws. It almost immediately put me in mind of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, with its use of everyday comedy providing the little laughs without relying on caricature or broad humour, but Holding is a more subtle, more realistic take on a small town’s underlying secrets, without the nasty, menacing undercurrent that made The Casual Vacancy such a difficult read.
Holding is by no means a slight, easy novel. It’s a well-crafted story that evokes an enormous amount of feeling. It doesn’t poke fun at its characters, or even the types of people who inspired the characters, but paints them in a matter-of-fact, intensely easy-to-believe palette. Within the story is another one that twists its way in and becomes the lynchpin on which the mystery is solved, which is so heart breaking and sad that it stayed with me longer even than the main plot. Norton tells a wonderful story, and if Holding is anything to go by it may well be that there’s every chance he could give up the day job.
First printed in The Tuam Herald on 09 11 16