It is not often that I read independent authors, but I'm running out of dead authors to read, so I decided to reach for a book by a contemporary author instead, and broaden my literary horizons. Other than knowing that The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone is Liam Howley's debut novel, I did not know what to expect.
The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone opens with an introduction to Cornelius Solitude Conlon, an aging man who, I assumed, was the primary protagonist. In fact, my assumption continued throughout a good portion of the novel, even though the narrative shifted to various other characters as I read along. Nevertheless, as the story progressed, Cornelius became but one piece in the game board that is Poulnabrone.
It is, in fact, Poulnabrone that is the centerpiece of this story. Primary and secondary characters appear on the scene, make an impact, and leave. Some return later on, some never appear again, yet others remain present to weave the fabric of the tale as it is spun along, carrying with them the thread of continuity without overshadowing the main premise.
And what is the premise? As with any good work of literature, it is open to interpretation, and I believe that no two readers will walk away from this story feeling the same exact way as to its meaning. For me, nevertheless, the premise is the state of humanity. Poulnabrone may be the game board; Cornelius, Lily, Tara, the Tully's, Malachy, and all the others nothing but game pieces. Howley moves them around to advance the story, but not a single one of them carries the story on his shoulders. Together, however, they present a full picture of our modern society as it thrashes around in the wake of its deeds.
As I said, the novel opens with Cornelius. A beautifully developed character, who may appear crazy, yet may be the sanest person in the entire town. Cornelius is obsessive, devoted, indifferent, involved, hoping for a miracle while preaching doom. He is contradictory, and therefore utterly human.
The novel starts slowly, without any tension building up for quite a few pages. This, nevertheless, did not put me off. Howley builds on the scenery and characters' interactions to set the scene, to establish Poulnabrone's history, and to provide background for the main narrators. Later on, he capitalizes on this by moving the story along at a faster pace without having to resort to info dumps. And yes, a story like this one does not work without background information.
Genre readers accustomed to formulaic writing will probably struggle with Howley's writing style, but those accustomed to reading the classics, and literary works, will be right at home. The Absurd Demise reads more like Dostoyevsky's The Idiot than a contemporary novel. There is the poetic language of literary fiction and the rawness of psychological realism, stitched together by an interesting cast of fully developed characters weaving in and out of the narrative as the absurdity of our 'civilization' appears in the mirror Howley positions, but not forces, in front of us.