Myth and Identity: Gavin Corbett’s THIS IS THE WAY

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Living in the wake of violence strikes dread uncertainty in the minds of those proceeding it. The past, its causes and its tensions, reverberate in the survivors’ lives and unsettle them. If there is a murder, they feel connected to it. They worry, and their minds wonder if death will reignite the fires that kept alive the feud that lasted for so long. The cessation of violence, they think, may prove to be only a pause. One wrong look or one spiteful word could bring back centuries of strife and trouble.

In this way, in the time following an old feud, the gap that separates two factions is preserved, like a canyon that remains after the bridge across it has been built. Those who first walk across the bridge do not know what to expect as they leave to meet their rivals, nor do they know if their rivals can be trusted. They walk out alone. They look back from where they came and they look up, holding their heads to the sky with dignity, projecting the confidence that assures themselves as well as their rivals they are sound and their intentions are pure.

It is this moment that Gavin Corbett articulates in his second novel, This Is The Way. The Irish novelist looks into the life of a twenty-two year old, Anthony Sonaghan, as he moves away from his family home. He leaves behind its traditions, its beliefs, its taboos, and its myths to cross the bridge between the feuding clans of Sonaghans and Gillaroos.

But his journey is interrupted. As he arrives in a Gillaroo town he is threatened. So, frightened and expelled, he travels for Dublin. There, in a quiet, ramshackle tenement near the center of the modern city, away from the country, bored and mostly alone, Anthony Sonaghan looks behind him. He looks back and recalls his family’s place within the ancient feud. He tries to define their role in that drama. But also he looks up and searches for a purpose to their conflict, a meaning. He grasps for the transcendental hooks of fate and understanding to settle it in his mind.

Within the drama of the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos, Anthony and his siblings are unique. They are the first offspring in centuries to come from both clans and they are beset with the problems attendant on belonging indefinitely to the two worlds. Anthony’s brother, Aaron Sonaghan, is threatened by Gillaroos to a fight. His father, Aubrey Sonaghan, a boxer and the peacemaker who first united the two clans by marrying a Gillaroo, forbids him, saying that Aaron will lose his boxing license if he does. But Aaron disobeys and fights the Gillaroo boys only to be stripped of his license, just as his father predicted. The resulting feelings of purposelessness and shame, doubled by his father’s anger, depress him and lead him to suicide.

Margarita, Anthony’s oldest sister, married young and left home for the west. No one sees or hears from her. She’s left both families to live a new life with her husband. Anthony’s younger sister Beggy lives in a suburb outside of London with their mother Kate, who fled home when Aubrey began to beat her. Having tried to make peace between the two clans and to improve his family’s lot, Aubrey moved them to a new town to live a life that he hoped would be better for them. But disappointments led first to frustration and then to shame and by the end of the novel to God.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this family’s dispersion lies with Kate Sonaghan, née Gillaroo. Unable to find a home in Ireland, she and Beggy abandoned the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos for London, though she, more than any other member of the two families, seems most capable of making peace between them.

Anthony recalls a moment from his childhood when one night his mother told him and his siblings the mythical origin of the feud. Centuries ago, she says, the two families were happy groups of fish living in one pond in a farmer’s field. They kept to themselves, Kate says, but they lived peacefully together, and sometimes they would intermarry.

But outside the pond and unbeknownst to the fish, the owner of the farm had made a deal with the devil after killing his older brother, who was entitled to inherit the farm when their father died. The devil told the farmer Dan that he could purge his sin by helping him steal the treasure of a nearby church. To protect him from harm in the catacombs, the devil placed a magic stone in his chest. This would prevent him from dying, he said. To Dan’s surprise, the stone works and he survives.

Dan returns to the farm with the jewels that the devil had promised to share with him. But when Dan hands over the treasure the devil runs away. At first Dan is angry, but soon he realizes that he can make lots more money with immortal life, a power granted to him by the magic stone. Putting the devil’s deceit behind him, Dan decides to test this new power by trying to kill himself. He climbs a tree and with a noose tied around his neck, he jumps and falls and hangs limply in the air. He’s dead. Kate explains: “Because childer when a man kills himself it is the Devil’s work, it is the Devil doing the killing. And the Devil knew the stone in front of Dan’s heart, he knew to get around it.”

When God realizes what Dan has done, His wrath descends upon the farm. Angered by Dan’s suicide, his deal with the devil, and his murder of his older brother, God wants to punish him, but Dan is dead. There is nothing to smite but his property. So God smites the cattle by draining the pond where the fish swim.

Examining the effects of God’s wrath, the Blessed Mother sees the shoals of fish flapping in the drying pond. She intercedes when God is not looking and makes them human. When God comes to find what the Blessed Mother has done, He says, “I am down on people Mother. But I am too tired to do much about it. It would take an effort to finish all these people off. So I am going to curse them and let them finish each other off instead.”

So for centuries the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos have fought. They’ve fought from their native town through the neighboring fields and counties. They fight until Kate’s husband and Anthony’s father, Aubrey Sonaghan, wins the respect of the Sonaghans and Gillaroos as a great boxer. He becomes a hero.

What he does others do too. So he got to the point he knew he had the power to do anything. He could continue on the road he was on or he could make the peace. And you know that is what he done. And the first people he went to make the peace with was the Gillaroos. It was like the curse was broken. (p. 63)

This by far is the gentler of the two origin stories told in the novel. The other concerns a certain pattern on the left thumbprint of all Sonaghans. This has the effect of making the feud uncorrectable, because it is natural, while Kate’s myth tells the story of a group of people who have surmounted their fate.

But unfortunately fate cannot be so easily surmounted. The strife between the two families cannot be healed with one marriage. Two may find love while the rest remain in strife, still torn between family loyalty and their own self-preservation. Until the latter wins out, the feud will continue.

Thinking about his father’s boxing career and his motivation for leaving the ring, Anthony says, “There is two kinds of pride. And it is pride in his person made him stop. He backed out the fighting right at the top, he was unbeaten. And he put away the other pride to back out, to go a different road. There is pride in your person and there is pride in your people.”

The difference between the two prides is at the heart of the novel, which after all is a novel about youth. This Is The Way is a novel about youth not simply because Gavin Corbett is a young writer or because the narrator is a young man. And it is a novel about youth despite the fact that so much of the story is set in the past. It is a novel about youth because the tension of it is derived from the separation that Anthony feels between his background, his family and his education, and the person that he wants to become. It is a novel of Anthony’s struggle to identify with a world that he resents.

While in Dublin Anthony meets a woman at the university library named Judith Neill. She is collecting stories from people like him, she says. Her father was a folklorist who in his day collected tales from the Sonaghans and Gillaroos (among others). Judith encourages Anthony to think about his family and his life and to frame those pieces within a narrative.

Anthony relays this from one of their first meetings:

Judith says you have to look at these things in detail and in whole and the story will make sense. I says is it fate you are talking about. She says it is not fate but from where you are looking it can seem like fate. Everything can only lead to where you are looking from and the more certain you are about where you are looking from the better to see what leads to it.

Looking back, she says, the pieces of a story seem to be fitted together. But from the other direction, not of telling the story but of living it, the pieces just seem to come together. Some fall in place while others are pushed or pulled by one’s own will or an other’s. There is no sense of fate or a greater understanding to it. When Anthony tells his uncle Arthur “I don’t know fuck all about stories,” this is what he is articulating: fatelessness and confusion.

Having been raised in the country, away from the traditions of his extended families, Anthony feels there is nowhere he belongs. Without traditions and customs to root him, he is wayward and resentful.

He tells his uncle, “Most the people in this country are wrong in their ways I says. Any old person you see, any young person you see, anything they say, anything they have and anything they hold to is wrong.”

When the meat factory where he works is closed he thinks, “Too much going on for these people isn’t no one like me going to help themself clinging to these people isn’t that right I says I will go until I hit the buffers all of them, all them country people on the roads.”

Unlike his father, who stopped boxing out of pride for himself, elevating that pride above the pride he had in his family, Anthony seems to take pride neither in himself nor in his family. The pieces of his life that should be coming together to form his identity are being repelled. He has no pride in where he comes from, so he has no pride in who he is.

The violence surrounding him pushes him further from himself. There is the threat on his life, the surprise appearance of his uncle Arthur, who’s big toe has been sown onto his hand to replace his left thumb, and the reports in the papers of the violent deaths of men with names like Damien Thresh Sonaghan Lee and Showbiz Joseph Thresh, Damien’s brother.

In the boredom of his Dublin room, stories become Anthony’s sole comfort. He looks to stories about other people to help him understand his own, following another lesson from Judith. “She said I should collect stories myself, they would help me tell my own.” He listens to his uncle and he remembers the myth told to him by his mother. And in time he is able to tell his own stories. He speaks about his father, his job at the meat plant, and the Spanish girl Conchita, who came to Ireland to live with Anthony and Aubrey while she learned English.

Stories bring order to his mind. They make him resolute and give him courage. By the end of the novel Anthony may not have pride in who he is or where he is from but at least he is able to face his past and return to his father’s house. He is even able to think of his father as having dignity, rather than as a man with only the hope of being a good husband and father. This is certainly a step forward in understanding himself and laying his past to rest.

In This Is The Way Gavin Corbett has created a character whose own journey mirrors the act of reading and he has done this with more than the usual cleverness. Anthony Sonaghan’s lostness is rooted in his lack of knowledge of who he is and who others are. He collects stories to situate himself. Much in the same way do readers pick up a book to learn how to articulate their own lives and the lives of others better. In both cases the details of a life are fitted together in a way that may resemble the primitive idea of fate, though in the process of calling up the details and spinning the threads together one strand at a time the mystical notion fades away. What is left is simply the certainty that these are the elements that have composed a life. Once all of the trappings of myth and ancient customs are wiped away, This Is The Way remains a novel about the choices we make (in life and in stories) and a reminder that we are free to choose something different. No path is set by fate.

 

This Is The Way will be released on March 5, 2013 by Faber and Faber.

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