The Old Man and the Princess, by Sean-Paul Thomas - 4 Stars
This is an offbeat and soul-wrenchingly original tale of family, fantasy and otherworldly promise with a defining Irish quirk running through it like the lateral line on a blarney fish. I don’t think you can compare this unusual story to anything much, as it veers between the ridiculous and the mundane, pits frailty and youth against the hard nuts of gangland and toggles the reader through a series of second guesses and bitter-sweet realisations. This is the human equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw and dodging the beatings but there’s redemption too and, adjusting for context, tenderness. There are shadows lurking in this book, hateful and riled places, rusty vans, bitching and blood in the verge but for all that there’s a spirit too, a living, swearing breath of life that swirls and spits and kids about, carrying you down the author’s stream of narrative. Is it possible that those who inhabit the edges of society, those with genuine hardship and little to lose react by taking greater risks and by that becoming more alive?
It also follows the orphan psychology angle of a child wondering who their parents really were, what their thinking was when they gave their child up and whether they could one day return to the rescue and complete the family circle. J.K. Rowling did this sort of thing, they were wizards Harry, but really it’s the honest reality that an abandoned child would want answers and will imagine a history that might serve to fill the sadness and gaps in their unfair story. In truth though, very few wealthy and well-adjusted parents would give their child away, so it is better advice to avoid the disappointment of meeting them.
The language in this book is really fruity, yet imaginative and fresh with it, taking the fek-talk of Father Ted’s housekeeper and letting it loose on the streets of Ireland and coast of Scotland. It isn’t offensive when the dialect is this tangible and just seems to blend into a collective Irish defensive heritage until your ears are left comfortably warm. I wasn’t offended by any of that, more amused and drawn in as it helped me to find a connection and affinity to the characters.
It’s hard to read past the early scene involving abduction off the street, especially if you’ve ever been in a vulnerable fix before, but then it turns out to be something other than you think and is therefore an essential plot driver when revealed. Generally though, the opening two scenes wouldn’t fit better into the world of the Brothers Grimm than that of Disneyland, so down w’this sorta thing and careful now.
I got on well with this book because it took me far enough away from my usual comfortable reading material. It had the human angle, so necessary in fantasy which then turns out to all be explicable in reality. It also stays between the lines to the greater extent, which was a relief because I thought at the start it might go all Wasp Factory. All in all, a good, refreshing slap in the face of underground culture.