Holding by Graham Norton
The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste.
So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.
Darkly comic, touching and at times profoundly sad. Graham Norton employs his acerbic wit to breathe life into a host of loveable characters, and explore – with searing honesty – the complexities and contradictions that make us human.
I was both curious and apprehensive to read this book, as ‘celebrity’ books can sometimes be a bit of a mixed bag. I’m happy to say I was surprised and delighted with what I found. Delighted because it was a well written and well-developed story, surprised because it offered another side to the Graham Norton I know from radio and TV. I had anticipated a book peopled with Irish stereotypes and full of waspish and witty, if not caustic repartee. What I got was an evocative and at times lyrical portrayal of small town Irish life with a mystery at its heart.
The story is set in the small (presumably West Cork derived) village of Duneen. It has a feel of Ballykissangel about it (which is not a criticism), in that we get to know about the lives. loves and losses of its inhabitants. The difference in this case is that the central character is not the local priest but PJ Collins, the rather bumbling, overweight local Garda.
The drama begins with the discovery of bones, by builders developing old farm land. The question is whose? The book follows the investigation into who and why and that raises old ghosts and skeletons for several members of the community.
It was interesting that the majority of the other main characters were women, and they were all women with stories to tell. They were well drawn, well developed, sympathetic characters. Aside from Garda Collins however, the other men in the book do not fare so well.
As the investigation develops, we also start to see a different Garda Collins. PJ has spent his career, dealing with the mundane and routine, so has never been challenged. This is his moment to step up to the plate and we start to see a more confident and interesting man emerging, especially as he begins to command some grudging respect from the detective sent in from Cork.
I have seen criticism of this book, claiming the book is full of stereotypes set in an unrealistic village that doesn’t exist outside of cosy mysteries. As someone who married into an Irish family, and has visited West Cork for over 20 years I disagree. Admittedly they now have mod cons, the internet and Sky TV, but in rural Irish communities, life does at times feel like you’ve stepped back in time. There is a real sense of community, everybody does know every one else’s business and if you want to know what’s going on, ask the shopkeeper.
This was a book which despite its gentle pace, still packed an emotional punch. It was by turns, dramatic, sad and funny, but always warm and compassionate. I’m pleased that the book ended not so much on a cliff hanger as a little hook, as I hope that means a possible return to Duneen.
I received an ARC via NetGalley.