Oisín Fagan’s first novel is a dark and bloody tale, well leavened with bone-dry humour, and with a dramatic climax that has about it the flavour of a Jacobean tragedy (or Kurosawa, for the more cinematically inclined). The medieval Ireland in which the book is set was a complicated and contending mix of native Irish, or Gaels; long-settled English, many of Norman origin; and more recent English settlers...Nobber is written in a heightened contemporary English that eschews the larding on of situating historical detail. Through precise, vivid language, both vertiginous and beautifully controlled, it creates a world as real, and unreal, as our own, which exists in a dark, deracinating dialogue with ours, now and as it might be in the future.
You could see Nobber as an anarchic snapshot of a society in flux, a warning about the seductions of demagoguery, or even a send-up of disaster capitalism; in an Irish context, the scene of Colca’s mother’s anguish at her son’s eventual fate can’t help echoing the kangaroo-court justice dealt out by paramilitaries. Yet the novel never feels like a vessel for anything so simple as a message; a grisly, gross-out slice of medieval life and death, it’s vigorously, writhingly itself, spilling out of any box you put it in.
This is all tremendously good fun: if noir whimsy and highfalutin’ bawdiness are your thing, you will find a chortle-worthy moment on every couple of pages. Less hedonistic readers may be left scratching their heads in bemusement: what, they might very well ask, is the point of it? As a work of narrative fiction resembling a cross between a medieval picaresque, a children’s adventure story and one of the “historical” Carry On films, Nobber occupies the intersection of a Venn diagram nobody even knew existed. Fagan is a skilled storyteller with a rich command of language and rare comedic flair. One hopes he is able to put his considerable talents to more constructive use in future.
Towards the end, the violence does reach a genuinely exciting climax. But even then, the effect is only to confirm what an ultimately frustrating novel Nobber is: one that gives us plenty of glimpses of Fagan’s literary talent, but also leaves us wishing he had found a more consistently satisfactory way of harnessing it.