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'Black Snow' Is A Lyrical Landscape Of Hope And Menace

Former Dublin newsman Paul Lynch made his debut as a novelist a few years ago with a book called Red Sky in Morning, set in mid-19th century County Donegal, where a rage-driven farmer has committed a murder with devastating results. The Black Snow, Lynch's second novel, returns us to Donegal, though at a later date, and he's working at an even higher level of accomplishment than before.

The year is 1945. Allied aircraft fly overhead on their way to bomb a Germany in the last movement of its dark symphony of hate and war. On the ground, a farmer named Barnabas Kane, his Irish-American wife, Eskra, and their teenage son Billy suffer what Barnabas suspects may have been a terrible act of arson. Or doubly terrible, we might say, since the fire in the farm's cow barn not only destroys all of his livestock, but also takes the life of a trusted farmhand who'd rushed in, at the urging of his boss, to try to save the animals.

This by itself would have made a compelling novel: A man and his wife — Barnabas and Eskra — struggling against adversity, the loss of their herd, and the mixed response of the nearby villagers. (Kane is, in the local parlance, a "local stranger" — which is to say, someone who emigrated to America to make his fortune, and then returned to his home county, where in these circumstances he is held at arms' length by many of the inhabitants.)

As Lynch presents the story, it becomes an out of the ordinary creation, a novel in which sentence after sentence comes so beautifully alive in all the fullness of its diction and meaning that most other contemporary Irish fiction looks sheepish by comparison.

Lynch's language is rough-hewn and yet beautifully lyrical, uncommonly conducted with as many vowels as consonants, and thus diverging from the raw piercing strength of traditional Celtic diction. I could scarcely read more than a few pages at a time without having to stop and contemplate quitting the writing of fiction myself, rather than compete with passages like Lynch's description of doomed farmhand Matthew Peoples, who has a face like "a dream of sand ... A face like a lived-in map. The high terrain of his cheekbones and the spread of red veins on the pads of his cheeks like great rivers were written on him."

Or Barnabas' farm after a big storm, "The sky distant and inert and its lungs blown out." Or — more weather — the farmer studying the sky and seeing "a ridge of low cloud like dirt snow sided on a road. What it met shined from over the hills, an eternal blue that spoke the world could be perfect if it wanted to." But there's danger here, too. Fire can "forge its own weather" and the sound of "the fire's hunger" as it devours Barnabas' barn is "like some enormous force let loose upon the world — an epic thing that held within its violence the fierce, rolling energy of the sea."

Through this landscape of hope and menace Barnabas Kane trundles, a good man hampered by stubbornness, pride and a gargantuan lack of empathy for his wife and son; at one point he risks everything in his life rather than suffer embarrassment. Sentence by sentence we read about how his world comes apart, even as Lynch's language binds everything together — nature, character, time and the wild paradoxical aspiration of a novelist driven to try and make sense out of the inexplicable.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.