Paul Lynch’s ambitious debut novel, Red Sky in Morning, aims to examine the current historical moment through a mythic lens.
Beginning in 1832, we watch as a young Irishman, Coll Coyle, tries to prevent his family from being evicted by a brutal landlord. A fight ensues, and the landlord is killed. Our young hero is forced on the run across the mountains and bogs of Donegal, to the bustling port of Derry, and thence to America. He’s pursued by Faller, the landlord’s brutal enforcer, who opts not to involve the constabulary (as he puts it), but to track down and kill Coll himself (along with almost everyone Coll comes in contact with).
Red Sky in Morning feels like an attempt to transport the mythical landscape of the American West to remotest County Donegal (which, in fairness, has always been the remotest and harshest part of Ireland). The initial comparison that came to my mind was the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood’s lone gunman, although another competing antecedent soon became the first Terminator movie, with the implacable killing machine chasing the hero relentlessly. I suspect the book would make an entertaining movie.
The autonomy to be as brutal and murderous as they liked was something that Anglo-Irish landlords enjoyed at this time, particularly in the remoter parts of the country. The lord was the ultimate authority in his locality, as very often they were also the magistrate; so, the book can be read quite rightly as a critique of a very unjust system. There are also parallels with the current economic hardships: people are again being evicted from their homes, many are emigrating to America, corruption continues to be common and to go hand in hand with politics. So, Red Sky at Morning ambitiously addresses many weighty contemporary issues through the guise of an historical drama.
Ultimately, I wanted a bit more depth to the characters. John Faller is no more subtle than Schwarzeneggers’ killing machine: he’s programmed to kill Coll Coyle, and nothing but death will stop him. Coyle gets a scant few pages of backstory before getting into a fight that ends with him on the run for his life. Everything after that is his reaction to events. The incidental characters that they meet are sometimes painfully one-dimensional: the senile old Anglo-Irish patriarch talking to his stuffed fox and indifferent to his tenants’ fates, the jolly but brainless Irish yokel who sleeps with his own daughter… But, those are ultimately tropes of the genre Lynch is actively engaging with, the western, and to develop the secondary characters may have served to undermine the almost mythic status of the two combatants.
I suspect the author really wanted to evoke the new west of Cormac McCarthy, where men are men, and hold to a harsh code of honor and might makes right. Lynch tries to similarly reinvent his language to make us look at these familiar situations and tropes anew, but for me it distracted from the characters’ story. I appear to be very much in the minority on this novel, as others have praised it extravagantly and celebrated its prose. It probably comes down to how you feel about Cormac McCarthy’s work. If McCarthy’s language and vision thrill you (and a lot of people seem to love it), I suspect you’ll enjoy Paul Lynch’s Red Sky in Morning.