Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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33 thoughts on “Himself by Jess Kidd

  1. This sounds really interesting, I do love all that over-blown, crafted prose – but it is such a tricky tightrope, so easy to slip into self-parody if you’re not careful. This might be one I eventually get around to as it certainly sounds original, but it won’t tear me away from the two Hugh Fraser books that landed on my doormat at the weekend. I am half way through the first one and -oh my, FF! – This is not the Captain Hastings we know and love! There is sex, drugs and violence aplenty but, actually, it is done rather well. I was a bit unsure at first, but by the third chapter I was properly engrossed. There are books that are better written, certainly, but the story is actually really good and the characters I found most annoying were swiftly killed in satisfyingly violent ways. I shall keep you posted! Also – the lovely Hugh followed me back on Twitter and I nearly wee’d myself with delight.

    • Yes, I thought she fell over the line a few times, but on the whole she maintained it brilliantly – just got a bit carried away.

      Haha! I’m glad you’re enjoying them, but they sound awful! 😉 I must admit that was what I felt when I saw him being interviewed about the first one – even the interviewer seemed surprised at all the sex and violence. He looks so innocent too! That means you can talk about “My friend, Hugh Fraser” now! Haha! I remember ages ago when I gushed about Ken Kalfus’ book he followed me on Twitter and I thought I might burst! That’s my friend Ken Kalfus, by the way… 😉

      • I think I will really enjoy her style, sounds beautifully deranged 😉
        When I started reading it I was thinking – how does he even know about these things?! Quite clearly a man of the world in every respect! Luckily our correspondence has been limited to tea and cake, although if he wants to purge forth with a barrage of filth, I won’t mind too much, seeing as it’s him 😉
        It is really exciting, isn’t it! I had to have a strong cup of tea at once. As I was only saying to my friend Hugh Fraser yesterday, tea and a biscuit makes everything better. He likes a dark chocolate digestive, by the way. I know that because that’s the sort of things friends know about each other, you see 😀 (I told my mum and once I had explained what Twitter was, she was very excited)

        • Oh, I must tweet my friend Ken Kalfus and find out what kind of biscuits he likes! Though I’m sure he calls them cookies, being my American friend. When I reviewed one of his later books and ticked him off a bit for doing something I felt was ethically dubious, I wondered if he’d read it. He not only did, but he linked to my review from his website! See, that’s ‘cos friends like us forgive each other… 😉 I just hope he never writes a book I hate…

          • Oh yes you must ask your friend Ken Kalfus as I am very interested to know what cookies he likes and I feel absolutely sure that my friend Hugh Fraser would love to know also!
            That really is very cool, not only does he like you so very much as a friend, but he also has the utmost respect for your reviewing skills! Hm – if he writes one you hate, either don’t review it or risk an unfollow (horror of horrors! 😉 )

            • Perhaps we should introduce my friend Ken Kalfus to your friend Hugh Fraser. I suspect they’d get along!

              Haha! I suspect in truth it may be because I seem to be not just his biggest fan but one of an extremely small, select band of fans. 😉 I don’t know why, though – I genuinely think he’s great. And I’m sure I’ve persuaded at least two people to read his books! I’m so influential… 😉

            • Haha – I am not sure they are your sort of thing… especially as they are written in the dreaded FPPT… 😮 I know – I will tell you about them and you can feign interest a bit, how’s that? 😉

  2. Despite my fondness for most things Irish, I just don’t think this tale would appeal to me. Something about all those creepy dead people wandering around … or maybe it’s the losing of the plot in the crafting of the words … or maybe it’s simply the idea of all that brutality. Whatever. I’m glad you read and reviewed this one so I don’t have to, ha!!


      I don’t think this would appeal to you either, Debbie. I didn’t want to say in the review because it’s a bit of a spoiler, but there’s a horrific description of something that happens to a dog which I wish I had never read. It was entirely unnecessary too, which is what I meant when I said I felt it went past acceptable shock. So avoid it!

  3. This certainly is an original idea, FictionFan! I can see what you mean about the Brigadoonish quality of the village, too. I think I’d want something a little less far-fetched, myself, but I always give some points for innovation. Glad you found some things to like about this.

    • Yes, it went a little too far beyond credibility for my taste, but it certainly is original, and shows a huge amount of promise for the future. I can’t say I really enjoyed the story, but I admired her skill and will be keen to see how she develops…

  4. And an intriguing review from you too! I’m not sure this would work for me but I am curious despite hating books with ghosts, even if they are of the very human variety, that said, the most original book you’ve read this year goes a long way. I have noted FF Law 3 and once again, we are in perfect agreement 😉

    • Yes, although I didn’t wholeheartedly love it, I’m glad I read it because I do think she has huge potential for the future. The ghosts were a touch annoying after a bit though! Haha! That’s a law I never expected to have to make… 😉

  5. You have finally put a term to something I have witnessed before! Creative Writing Class Hangover! (Perhaps that explains the excessive gas…) Yes, books can suffer this fate, though it sounds like there were many redeeming qualities as well.

    • Yes, I’m noticing it more and more – I do think there’s a certain feel to débuts from people who write them while doing creative writing courses, but I suspect it’s normally worn off a bit by book 2. Definitely Jess Kidd shows loads of potential though – one to watch, for sure. Haha! So long as she can get her characters to stop eating so many beans… 😉

  6. Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure this will be my cup of tea. Interesting contrasts though: “the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant.” If the characters are unlikable, I know I’ll dislike this book.

    • The main characters were reasonably likeable, though none of them really made me care terribly much. But the rest of the villagers were all pretty horrible, and a bit caricatured. But the choice to have such a clash between the language and the story was definitely intriguing and she handled it really well for the most part, just going too far at points for effect. So flawed, but an interesting début…

  7. What a great idea, shame the promise wasn’t fulfilled. Hopefully the beautiful writing and intriguing ideas will win out in the next book. I’m a bit tempted to read this but aren’t very good with nastiness…
    Love the third rule, too, and am looking forward to the fourth.

    • To be fair, the brutal bits are only a tiny part of it, but unfortunately because the writing’s so good, they’ve put images in my head I can’t get out, making me wish I hadn’t read them. But the good points outweigh the bad points overall, I think. Haha! I never thought I’d have to make that one a law… 😉

    • Thnak you, Emma! 😀 Yes, she really shows so much talent and potential, even if there were things about it that didn’t quite work for me. But she’s certainly an author to watch – I’m eager to see how she develops.

  8. This does sound good, and hopefully she’ll outgrow the creative writing class as her confidence grows. My hesitation comes from reading your comment about the dog – not sure I can handle it…

    • Yes, she shows loads of talent and promise even if there were some aspects that didn’t quite work for me in this one. The dog bit is very small, and I am ridiculously over-sensitive to animal cruelty in fiction. But the quality of the writing unfortunately meant that she created visual images in my head that I still can’t get out, leaving me wishing I hadn’t read it. And what annoyed/upset me most is that it was entirely unnecessary for the story and done purely for effect. Well, it was certainly effective…

  9. That does indeed sound like a case of creative writing course-itis – I always felt that about McGregor’s “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things”, too. And no horrors with animals, please, so thanks for mentioning that. Not one for me but good that people review them for us!

    • Yes, I think it’s becoming quite a common feature in débuts as more and more people take creative writing courses, but hopefully they’ll retain the benefits while calming it down in future books. The dog bit is tiny, but annoyed me because it was unnecessary and simply done for effect, and unfortunately the quality of her writing means it has left me with some visual images I wish I didn’t have. Makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend the book…

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