Book Review

Himself by Jess Kidd


Himself is Jess Kidd’s debut novel, and one that I’ve been wanting to read since I read and loved both The Hoarder and Things in Jars.

1950. A teenage girl is brutally murdered in a forest. But, somehow, her baby survives.

1976. A mysterious and charming young man returns to the remote coastal village of Mulderrig, seeking answers about the mother who, it was said, had abandoned him on the steps of a Dublin orphanage.

With the help of its oldest and most eccentric inhabitant, he will force the village to give up its ghosts. Nothing, not even the dead, can stay buried forever.

Opening in 1950, the reader is immediately introduced to the final moments of Orla Sweeney’s all too brief life.  Her baby survives, and returns to Mulderrig 26 years later looking for answers as to why he was abandoned at a Dublin orphanage.  It’s an intriguing mystery, and, with no body or any evidence of wrongdoing, he has a hard time knowing where to start in this mission.  Most of the villagers believe that she left of her own free will, and few have anything good to say about her, having felt a sense of relief after her disappearance irrespective of her fate.  Mahony isn’t the sort to be put off lightly, however, and with a little help from some new friends, he starts to unpick the mystery of Orla’s disappearance and his own abandonment.

Kidd writes such brilliant, quirky characters.  Mahony is clearly a handsome guy, and the sort who makes women, whatever their age and status, dress up a little nicer and pull their stomachs in a little more than usual.  But while he’s the main character, and the one who initiates the events in the novel, it’s Mrs Cauley who is the standout for me.  A former stage star, she is now one of the oldest residents of Mulderrig.  While she may be old and small, perhaps even a little frail of body, she has the most fabulous wardrobe complete with a glorious selection of wigs, and she’s as sharp as a tack, taking no nonsense from anyone.  This is particularly true of Father Quinn, one of those who was happy to see the back of Orla, and who takes against Mahony from the beginning.  Mahony and Mrs Cauley make something of an unconventional team – something that I’m starting to see as a feature of Kidd’s work – but they work brilliantly together, and I enjoyed following them as they sought answers for Mahony.

Kidd’s writing is outstanding.  I love the subtle hints of Irish brogue and the deft touches of humour that run through the novel, and there were several passages that made me chuckle, despite it not being a particularly amusing novel.  I didn’t notice this in her subsequent novels, but Himself is dotted throughout with wonderful literary references.  I spotted a few, but I’m sure that there are others that I missed.  These are wonderful little Easter eggs for book lovers, and I loved coming across them as I was reading.  She also makes some fantastic observations:

It is a truth universally unacknowledged that when the dead are trying to remember something, the living are trying harder to forget it.

Himself, like The Hoarder and Things in Jars, is imbued with elements of the supernatural that make her novels a little different to the norm, and I love the originality of her work.  Kidd has become one of those authors whose work I would happily read without any foreknowledge of the contents, safe in the knowledge that I’m in for a fun and quirky read.

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