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Harrow The Boys is Paul Whyte’s futuristic imagining of an afflicted and dystopian Ireland.
Rising sea levels have taken vast swathes of the midlands and brought with it a new way of life for the survivors. Gates have been built to fend against a fluctuating tide that still washes the unlucky to shore and hides ten-foot-long snakes, with teeth as “long as fountain pens”.
Apps have been designed to navigate a dangerous terrain of toxic gases, and the structure of towns and buildings have been compromised. The local shop may well be little more than a “market stall frame welded to the body of an old chipper van”.
The story is centred around Ram and the Vivaldi brothers, Lazy and Breen. New age rag-and-bone men, they earn a living by scavenging the flooded plains for abandoned vehicles, scrap metal or old tanks that may still hold a valuable gallon or two of fuel.
Over the years, many others have scrounged these tired fields for bounty so pickings are scarce but luck seems to have changed for the trio when they are taken on by a corporate contractor to lay fibre in the surrounding county.
Still, the pull of prospecting for junk proves too much and they decide on one last outing before taking on the job. Early on, there are signs that this trip is going to be a troubled one. The group hear news of a whole family who have perished in a field near Carneycross, while the soundtrack for their departure is an ominous one – “the vague chorus of prayer…heard from beyond the market”.
The midlands lend itself well to apocalyptic tones, with its flat watery lands and cement grey skies, a blend of soggy rural meets Tatooine. Whyte’s writing captures the hopelessness of a semi-submerged world while also seizing on the loneliness of those lowly populating central counties, often finding sadness in the mundane – “A set of white goalposts wilted into a triangle still stands in the back garden.”
In those early chapters, we almost float along with the crew, extra passengers on Lazy’s red truck-boat, The Lion of St Mark. Past the shells of cottages and the lost gardens, flood-level warnings, stable houses and barns no longer fit for purpose.
In this new Ireland, a person has more chance of spotting a basking shark than a working farm. But our sombre tour of this dystopian landscape comes to an abrupt ending when Ram and his compatriots happen upon a large house. Somewhat neglected but mostly untouched by fellow scavengers, they move to investigate and in Tarantino-esque fashion, things suddenly take a violent turn.
The book becomes a different beast altogether. There is little room for breath. We rapidly skip from one character to the next. At times we might easily be watching the action on a big screen in a dark cinema.
Thriller, horror or science fiction, whatever genre it may fall into, Harrow The Boys isn’t for the faint hearted. The characters are memorable, the dialogue is natural and the pace is fast.
Although it isn’t a vast tome like the doorstop fiction that usually shoulders a way into those particular genre sections, it is the prose that really sets the book apart from a lot of its counterparts.
For the reader, there are plenty of those satisfying rewards that often accompany patient writing, like the release of pressure after each gentle pinch of a bubble wrap sheet.
Being the time of year it is, one image from the book stays with me in particular. A bar in a market town raised from a bayou by timber pillars – “There are sprigs of tinsel left tacked into beams, catching candlelight since last Christmas or perhaps the one before.”
It’s hard to ignore this link to an old way of life and compare it to what has become the new normal for these characters. And isn’t it often in these dystopian stories that we find hope or an opportunity to see our own world in a different light. The now contrasted with the warnings of what-might-be.
I can’t help but wonder how many winter seasons will have passed before monumental events become a distant memory in our own lifetime. How many fireside chats will revisit the masks and the lockdowns and the year without loved ones for so many? Will the music be turned up on those winter nights? Another drink poured? A renewed appreciation for those freedoms that may have returned.