Monday, October 04, 2021

The Boatman by Billy O'Callaghan

Even without Mei in the room, her presence blocked out the space the way sand fills an hourglass, turning everything slow. That's how I wanted it to be, and that at least was what I'd have, but I knew from before, from having already lost her once, such ghosts tormented as much as consoled. We'd taken an important step in reconnecting and had sworn we wouldn't let that flag, so that it would be different this time, better even if still a long way from ideal, but keeping our promise meant condemning ourselves to a famished life, to the scraps that could nourish only the most fragile of hearts. 

~from "Ruins", p. 44 of The Boatman

I chose an excerpt from the story "Ruins" in The Boatman by Billy O'Callaghan at random because when I was reading I was so immersed that it never occurred to me to get up and look for flags to mark favorite passages. Instead, I read them over and over for their sheer beauty. But, this is what you most need to know about The Boatman: it is carefully, meticulously crafted, rhythmic and melancholy and absolutely stunning.

A few of the stories:

"The Border Fox" - A young man goes over the border into Northern Ireland with a group, to make a delivery. A tense story of subterfuge, violence, and budding romance. 

"The Boatman" - Two men walk to a graveyard to dig the grave of the boatman's daughter, who died very quickly after becoming ill. "She was only young," her uncle keeps repeating. A heartrending tale of grief and the physical labor that becomes a part of the grieving process. 

"Beginish" - A young couple, madly in love and still newlyweds, work hard at two jobs each to save money for a proper holiday. When they decide to stay close to home and camp out on an abandoned island, the man from whom they rent a boat is friendly though mildly concerned. But, neither he nor the young couple expect the tragedy they're about to encounter. 

"Love is Strange" - A teenager is compelled to help an elderly neighbor who regularly struggles up the hill to her home with her purchases. A few years later, he goes out with a neighbor girl and they talk about the old woman. 

I realize, after writing about these 4 stories, that all of them are favorites from the dozen in the book. But, I can't think of any story in The Boatman that I disliked. "Beginish" was the one story in the collection that I could imagine expanded to novel length and perhaps even turned into a movie. It's tragic, as are many of the stories. But, I was so swept away by the incredible beauty of O'Callaghan's writing that for once I thought more about the sound, rhythm and uniqueness of his wording than about the direction each story took. Having said that, all are compelling and at least two had an "edge of your seat" feel. 

Speaking of tragedy . . . if you've hung around here for a while, you know I generally rate anything tragic that lacks a glimpse of hope lower than I do those that give you some sense of light at the end of the tunnel. I gave The Boatman 5 stars, which just goes to show that truly amazing writing will win out, even if a story is gut-wrenching. That surprised me, actually. 

Highly recommended - This one's going on the good shelves and I will definitely return to it for future rereading. 

Important note: I posted about this book on Instagram, yesterday, and one of the photos I posted was of the book posed with a record album (vinyl, that is) and music box that my mother brought home from Ireland, way back when I was a tiny tyke. I listened to the album as a child and remembered the tune to the title song but none of the words. After I posted, I found the title cut on YouTube to listen to and hoo boy, it could be considered extremely offensive in some quarters. It's about a man going off to join the IRA. Since I don't mean to take sides in any way, that post will come down. I was really shocked. It has such a jaunty tune that I had no idea what it was about. In fact, the words "where the helmets glisten in the sun" was one of those phrases that my little-kid brain turned into something else, although there is no such thing as a "Hal man" that glistens in the sun . . . and I didn't remember what my mind had turned it to till I heard the song for the first time in decades. Apologies to any Irish citizens who may have seen that post and found it offensive. 

©2021 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Anonymous11:16 PM

    Just read “Beginish.” I don’t remember ever fearing so much for the characters in a story I was reading. Its emotional impact is devastating, the writing beautiful.

    I purchased this book because I was so impressed with “The Paper Man,” which I discovered quite by accident. Billy O’Callaghan, of whom I had never heard, is an incredible writer. If enough people discover him by accident, he’ll be famous one day

  2. Yes, that's exactly how I felt. It was terrifying, a slowly-unfolding horror. And, yet, the writing was stunning. I think I first discovered Billy O'Callaghan through my friend, Simon Van Booy, and I have gotten to see him talk about his writing when I took a writing class from Simon. He is a lovely soul and I agree with you. He's such a brilliant writer that surely the world will take notice.


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