Monday, 3 April 2017

The Call, by Peadar O'Guilin

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world, trapping every person on the island, Irish or not within its borders. Nobody in, nobody out. No internet, no new technology- nothing. For decades, every adolescent Irish citizen has been ‘Called’, an ordeal that can happen at any moment of the day or night and last for 3 minutes 4 seconds Earth time, but a whole day in The Grey Land- a sulfurous hellscape, a pain ravaged world straight out of a Bosch painting. The survival rate is about 1 in 10, and those that come back are usually traumatized wrecks, psychologically and physically bent and stretched beyond recognition. Each Irish teen must fight for their life against the torturing, flesh sculpting Sídhe, a beautiful, deadly hill-dwelling creature of folklore, banished beneath the Earth by the Irish countless generations ago.

Our protagonist is Donegal girl Nessa, a fifth year student at a college that trains teens to battle the Sídhe. They learn hand to hand combat, hunting skills, how to hide, bushcraft, folklore and study the testimonies of those that survived their Call. It’s almost easy to forget sometimes that this isn’t a normal boarding school, with the usual teen dramas and friendships and teacher-dodging going on- but there’s those little reminders that Ireland is not a thriving nation; the terrible food, the lack of resources, harsh punishment and the fact that adolescents will disappear regularly leaving behind a pile of clothes until they return dead or alive three minutes and 4 seconds later. There's a decent cast of supporting characters, ever dwindling as they are Called, that populate the school. Conor, a swaggering, treacherous 'Elite' has assembled a round table of followers, ego strokers and minions to parade himself in front of. His story arc is an interesting  study of the power hungry types blessed with physical strength, confidence and charisma, and how sometimes it can be their undoing.
Detail from The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch, 
I really liked Nessa as a character; she was resourceful, focused and had just the right amount of sass. Nobody expects her to survive because she has weakened, malformed legs and feet from Polio- so cannot run fast or walk without crutches. This just makes her more determined to survive, and she has upper body strength that puts the rest of her school to shame. Nessa comes across as cold and aloof, but it’s only because she knows that as the weakest combatant in the college, she cannot afford to be weakened by personal relationships, attachments and worrying about others’ welfare. Having said that, best friend Megan and would-be-more-than-friends-but what’s-the-point Anto have found a chink in her armour.

I loved the questions the book asked about conflict, colonialism and conquest. It asks; what are the consequences of war? What is the cost of victory? Who pays that cost? How do we determine who is responsible for actions of the past? What does it mean to be guilty or innocent? Who inherits that guilt? It’s so insightful and so subtle. The book refrains from taking a stance on the matter mostly, but it’s made clear that the Sídhe are not mindless destroyers of nations; they are trying to claim back what was stolen from them. Their vengeance is a consequence of displacement. They are a conquered people desperate to be restored to land they consider their birth right.

I really, really liked this and read it in one sitting. I really had to force myself to not skip ahead to see who died- an unusual show of self-restraint from me there. As with the best speculative fiction, The Call delivers us metaphors that force us to examine our world and question our actions, perspectives and opinions. In Britain, now especially, we have a tendency to romanticize our horrendous colonial, genocidal, tyrannous history- erase whole periods in some cases. I loved that this novel used a combination of Irish legend and mythology, poetry and language to create this tapestry of history that was kept alive at a horrible cost. And wrapped it up in a haunting, heart-pounding, breathless action narrative of death, trauma and merciless continuation.

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