Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 304 pages; 2020.
Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers proved to be an unexpectedly immersive, totally compelling and incredibly SURREAL novel that will stay with me for a long time.
Set during the BSE crisis of 1996, this is yet another book that could be classified as “pestilence fiction” or “pandemic lit”. (I seem to be reading a string of them recently… all purely by accident… see Nemesis and Anna.)
But this one eschews the bad things that can happen when there is a disease outbreak in favour of the opportunities it can provide. In this case, the ban on British beef — put in place by the EU in March 1996 to prevent people contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) through eating infected meat — meant that Irish farmers were well placed to capitalise on a “Celtic Beef Boom”.
Wrapping the story in a 22-year-old mystery gives it a page-turning, fairytale-like quality.
I told you this book was surreal.
A mesmerising book about meat
It might sound a bit off-putting for a novel to focus on the Irish meat industry but Gilligan tells her story in such a mesmerising way that I did not want this book to end. (And I say this as someone who has not eaten red meat since 1991!)
She does this by creating a cast of intriguing characters, inventing a wholly believable myth about how cattle are slaughtered in Ireland, throwing in some crime and corruption, and then placing a mystery at the heart of the story.
This is all set within the context of ancient customs and rituals (including Catholicism) having to give way to “modern” Ireland, in which the power of the Church was declining while the Celtic Tiger was beginning to take hold.
A mystery to solve
When the book opens we are in New York in January 2018. An Irish photographer is holding an exhibition of his work. The star piece is a photograph he took 22 years earlier of a fully clothed butcher hanging upside down from the ceiling, bloody wounds apparent in his feet. But who is the man and how did he come to die in this way?
This is the central hub of the novel which focuses on four main characters, who each take turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters. These are:
- Grá, who is married to one of The Butchers of the title, a group of eight men who travel around Ireland for a year slaughtering cattle following an ancient Irish custom cloaked in secrecy;
- Grá’s 12-year-old daughter Úna, who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps, even though The Butchers are exclusively male;
- Fionn, a smallholder dairy farmer, who is looking for a quick way to make a lot of money so he can send his dying wife to Dublin for treatment; and
- Davey, Fionn’s son, who is in his final year at school, is a bit obsessed with Greek mythology and longs to head to the city to be free of small-town prejudices.
As the narrative unfolds we begin to understand how the crisis impacts each character — whether positively or negatively — and to discover their connection to the dead-butcher-turned-art-exhibit.
Myths and customs
As befitting a story that revolves around Irish folklore giving way to modernity, there is much focus on mythology — and meat. Here’s how Úna describes the rituals that The Butchers follow:
‘They hang each animal by its feet, bleed and skin it, check the organs. Then they clean and process – that means butchering it all into cuts. Then on the last day of their travels, they do a special ritual for the final cow. They split the meat between all eight of them to take home to us, their families.’ The bowls arrived before them steaming. Úna picked up her tarnished spoon. ‘And it’s tastier than any of that rubbish you would find at McDonald’s!’
And here’s how The Butchers came to be created:
She explained how a farmer’s wife had lost her entire family way back in some ancient war, so in her devastation, she had placed a curse which dictated certain rules around killing cattle. Henceforth, no man could slaughter alone; Instead, seven others had to be by his side … And ever since then, Úna warned, these rules had had to be adhered to or else the widow’s grief would be forgotten and the whole of Ireland would become diseased.
I could say a lot more about The Butchers — there really is a lot to discuss and I’ve only covered a fraction of it — but I should end things here. It is, in short, wonderfully realised, ambitious in scope (and plot) and wholly original. I loved it. Five stars!
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber: An unforgettable and surreal tale about a woman who picks up hitchhikers in Scotland. The story explores many issues, including meat consumption.
‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett: This is a story about an older man, working in the fur trade, who falls for a younger colleague that he cannot have. This dark novel, with its nod to Beauty and the Beast, is akin to a Gothic fairytale, albeit set in 1960s London.