The Wild Laughter
by Caoilinn Hughes | Oneworld | 208pp |€15.99 hb | 9781786077806
review by Liz Maquire
“Hughes’s poetry background rings true in this second novel, her lyrical voice and witty humour carrying the otherwise heavy story.”
Set in Roscommon in 2008, after the Celtic Tiger had woken and left Ireland in shreds between her claws, The Wild Laughter (Oneworld, 2020) by Caoilinn Hughes tells the story of the Black family. At once as familiar as it is surreal, the story is told from the first-person perspective of Dohart ‘Hart’ Black, who is the youngest son of the ‘Chief’ and his perpetually penitent wife Nora. In The Wild Laughter, readers meet Hart and his brother Cormac as the modern-day Irish Cain and Abel. As steeped in Irish symbolism as the teabag Nora uses three times when the local Parish Father visits, this novel is one to awaken the dormant senses of awesome legend.
A talented writer who is skilled in character and language, Hughes plays masterfully with her syntax in this novel. Hughes has discussed in interviews the power of mythology in her writing of the novel.
After investments and ‘hot tips’ cool, the Chief is left with debt and cancer. Idolised by the Black sons, he is not vilified by Hughes—the Chief’s impending death and long sickness are not justified punishment or cruelly cast with pleasure. Rather, they are the tale of Ireland during a period of history where rot within threatened the old ways. Cormac, the college-educated engineer, always with a plan, and his homely, ‘simple’ brother Hart are asked by their dying father to help him find peace. They are sons with a father who loved them, however differently, and are left to evaluate in the world what that means outside the family home and their contentious relationship. The matriarchal character of Nora is almost the driving force of the novel and Hart’s nearly outsider observations of her interactions with the family betrays her otherness to the father and sons. Hughes has said that her first visions of the novel focused on Nora and in this final draft it is intentional that so much of the character is left off the page when seen through her youngest son’s limited scope. And, yet, onward spirals a narrative that deals with the bleak tenderness of patricide, the darkness of shadow living, and the final redemption of a distorted justice.
The Wild Laughter, which is Hughes’s second novel, began for her nearly eight years ago. As with all tumultuous periods of Irish history, the tale of brothers divided symbolises for many the historical biblical roots of the country while quantifying the tensions between old and new identity that Ireland struggles with today. In Hughes’s characters of Cormac and Hart, the reader sees these romantic and logical sides of Ireland’s battle, with stark language to punctuate the all-too-familiar silences. Hughes’s poetry background rings true in this second novel, her lyrical voice and witty humour carrying the otherwise heavy story.
In a 2020 interview with author Kevin Barry as part of the first-ever virtual Cúirt festival, Hughes discussed her approach to craft and novel publishing. Barry bestowed the high accolade of calling The Wild Laughter and Hilary Mantel’s newest release his favourite reads of the last year. Hughes, who says she writes ‘sentence by sentence’, revealed that she once ‘smuggled’ a novella-length The Wild Laughter into her publisher. The ruse was promptly found out and thus the novel was restored to what you can enjoy today.
With sharp dialogue and acute observations of an Ireland dying as it experiences a rebirth, the writing of The Wild Laughter is painstaking and deliberate. Readers will be able to tell instantly that this is a project for Hughes driven not by the cursory need to follow up her 2018 début but, rather, a novel that fought itself to the surface for the author.
Hughes is a critically acclaimed author whose short fiction has won the Moth International Short Story Prize 2018 and an O. Henry Prize in 2019. Her 2014 poetry collection Gathering Evidence (Carcanet) won the Irish Times/Shine Award. Hughes’s first novel Orchid & The Wasp (Hogarth/Oneworld 2018) won the 2019 Collyer Bristow Prize. Hughes was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards and the Butler Literary Award. Hughes was longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Readers can find more of her work in Granta, POETRY, Tin House and elsewhere. The forthcoming audiobook of The Wild Laughter will be read by actor—and Roscommon man himself—Chris O’Dowd. Find your copy of The Wild Laughter wherever good books are sold.
Liz Maguire is an American reading her way through her adopted home of Ireland. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Liz has lived in Dublin on and off for several years and enjoys the culture, community and craic.