From the moment he was left on the doorstep of a convent as a baby, Francis Sweeney’s identity was taken away from him. Years later, now going by the name Mahony, Jess Kidd’s Himself follows the young adolescent in search of the mother who once abandoned him, armed with only an old photo as the key to open up his past. At first, Himself may seem like a typical story of self-discovery, of a lonely child searching for home. However, as he enters the village of Mulderrig, the tightknit community shrouded in mystery makes it clear that the past is to be left dead and buried.
Whilst Kidd’s novel mainly takes place in 1976, time jumps play a fundamental role in allowing for the plot to develop. Flashbacks move away from Mahony’s present day to 1950, the year of his mother’s disappearance. Once more, the prologue’s striking opening, depicting the brutal killing of a young girl holding her new-born baby, sets the unsettling tone of the book, as we begin to question what happened to young Orla Sweeney, Mahony’s mother.
The people of Mulderrig and their interactions with Mahony only intensify this feeling of unease, as they turn on the newcomer as he begins to ask too many questions. Once again the time jumps allow for parallels to be seen between Mahony and his mother, both ostracised by society. Luckily, Mahony finds solace in Mrs Cauley, whose remarkable characterisation proves her to be a valuable fellow detective.
Kidd could have stopped there and made a novel that certainly would have pleased readers. Instead, Kidd takes her mysterious debut as she reveals Mahony’s connection to the supernatural: the fact that he can see and interact with dead people. Naturally, this radically unravels the secrets the village have long tried to conceal from the rest of society, but it also allows Kidd to reflect on death and how it resonates with people in a thought-provoking manner.
That does not mean that Kidd takes her use of the supernatural too seriously: when a storm fuelled by paranormal energy terrorises Kidd’s protagonist, one fellow character asks: “Oh God. Can’t anything just be normal around here? Can’t a storm just be a bloody storm?”
Along with Kidd’s humorous wit, the sense of doom and gloom that envelopes Mahony’s past and his mother’s fate is alleviated by touches of romance. Despite his difficult upbringing, Mahony is a charismatic young man who charms his readers and those he meets.
As the story unfolds, the pace intensifies. The murder-mystery spirit of the novel is intoxicating as further clues are discovered, culminating in a dramatic pursuit of the murderer suggested in the novel’s opening. The depth provided by Kidd in this novel spans further than her main protagonist, revealing more about the villagers of Mulderrig as one may expect.
A perfectly executed debut, Himself brings the past and the present, the dead and the living, Mahony and his mother together in a story that is both chilling and heart-warming. Kidd is certainly an author to look out for.
Himself by Jess Kidd (Canongate, 2016)
Photo courtesy of Canongate