Fiction – paperback; Black Swan Ireland; 192 pages; 2017.
Irish writer Conor O’Callaghan has taken the concept of a “ghost estate” — an unfinished housing development abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy — and turned it into a modern horror story. His debut novel Nothing on Earth will have you checking the locks, making sure all your windows are closed and on tenterhooks for every strange noise you might happen to hear.
Yet this book, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, isn’t about ghouls or vampires or anything we might normally associate with the horror genre. It’s suspenseful simply because the plot is dotted with unexplained events, which play on your imagination, and O’Callaghan’s lyrical writing style, infused with a haunting, foreboding quality, ratchets up the tension.
Hot August nights
The story is narrated by someone looking back on a series of strange events that happened during the “hottest August in living memory”. It begins with the sudden arrival of a 12-year-old “skin-and-bone” girl on the doorstep of his home:
She looked like one who had neither eaten proper food nor inhaled fresh air for years. Her teeth were yellow, her nails uncut and filthy. Her skin was sunburned, except for those white lines that had been covered by straps. It was also marked in places, her skin was: scratches, creases, streaks of dirt, and words.
The girl, who has a stilted, foreign accent, isn’t a complete stranger. She had come to public attention when her mother went missing a few months earlier. They had been renting a house on a nearby ghost estate. Now the girl, who calls herself Helen, says her papa is missing too — “One minute he is behind you. And next time he was gone” — and it soon emerges her aunt, who had lived with them, is nowhere to be found either.
What has happened to the three adults? And where did the security guard who lived on site in a caravan disappear to? What does the landlord know? Who are the mysterious neighbours Helen talks about? Can the girl be trusted? Is she telling the truth?
The story spools back to the arrival of Helen’s family on the ghost estate and charts how events unfolded over the summer. What begins as a semi-idyllic existence — heady summer days, sunbathing in the garden, drinking wine and having a laugh — morphs into something more sinister as the nights give way to strange knocking on the front door and mysterious messages written in the dust on the windows.
The enigmatic nature of the story is its greatest strength. You’re never certain if something terrible has happened to Helen’s mother — was she murdered, for instance, or did she simply escape to a better life? Why isn’t her husband, Paul, upset, or is he just putting on a brave face for the sake of his young daughter? And has Helen’s auntie come to harm, or did she do a runner with the security guard who may, or may not, have been her lover?
This is the kind of novel that holds more questions than answers. You are never quite sure who to believe. And you’re not even sure that the events being described even happened.
It’s difficult to explain how O’Callaghan achieves this without giving away plot spoilers, but let’s just say it all adds up to a haunting and troubling and deeply unsettling read. There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the storyline, which gives it a necessary tension. And it’s hugely compelling; I wanted to eat it up in one long hungry sitting but had to ration it out because, you know, a little thing like going to work got in the way. I’d recommended clearing your schedule: once you begin Nothing on Earth you’ll want to read it all in one greedy gulp. Just remember to lock the doors.
This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
If you liked this, you might also like:
Broken Harbour by Tana French: A crime novel set on a ghost estate that brims with menace and unease.