Some of the current affairs land with a clunk (“Mossy was referring to the Divorce Bill that was after going through on Monday”) and the TV or radio are forever giving plot-relevant updates. But Gilligan makes her characters believable and sympathetic, and by setting the careful, intensely personal killing by the butchers against the profit-driven industrial farming that brought BSE into the food chain, she creates a pungent contrast that powers her novel... There are plenty of threads running through the novel, and they aren’t all convincingly resolved. But this strange and poignant book grips throughout, offering a vivid portrait of one of Ireland’s less heralded corners.
Gilligan’s backdrop of heart-stopping rural beauty and changing seasons – the remote lake where Grá swims daily, the comfort of Fionn’s cow byre and his favourites among the cattle, known as “the girls” – is laced with fear and menace: the rope which swings like a noose in Fionn’s farmyard; the black weeds in the water which threaten to drag Grá down into the depths. Úna is a singular and at times unnerving creation: questioning her identity, she is also a girl reluctant to grow up, binding her developing breasts and cutting her long hair, with a morbid fascination for The Butchers’ practices: and yet Gilligan rightly uses her to question misogyny and custom. Similarly Davey, who faces up to his own burgeoning sexuality in a brief romance with Con, one of the younger Butchers, also becomes an agent for change.