Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 1 Sep 2020 in Fiction |

CAOILINN HUGHES The Wild Laughter. Reviewed by Ann Skea

Tags: / / / /

Caoilinn Hughes’s second novel, The Wild Laughter, explores what happens in post-boom Ireland when a father makes a life-altering request of his sons.

There is plenty of laughter in this book. Hart (Doharty) Black’s way of telling his story is unique, colourful and often very funny. But there is wild laughter, too, because sometimes the only way of staying sane in the face of distress and death is to laugh:

We never needed hope to keep us going, keep us drinking. We never needed promises or prospects like the Yanks. No, no. What we could not be without is laughter – the thing austerity couldn’t touch. O-ho, the wild laughter!

 The heady days when the Celtic Tiger flourished under EU subsidies and brought prosperity to ordinary Irish folk are long gone. Hart remembers the good old days when, at the Offaly agricultural show:

… sixty thousand people the colour of rain turned out in complicated hair-dos and rosette-augmented breasts. They sashayed between alpaca-shearing competitions, pig-agility exhibitions and Herefords with weird clean arses being spruced for the stock judging.


 … no one voiced a word of provocation or changed the planning legislation or sought out unbiased advice or turned down the 10K loan when they’d only asked the bank teller for directions.

Now, Hart’s beloved father, Manus (The Chief ), is dying of a disease he refuses to be treated for, and the farm he has run since his parents and young sister were ‘burnt to slags in a hay barn when he was a youth’ is now rented from the new owners after the bank foreclosed on the debt.

Hart’s mother, Nora, is an ex-nun who left the convent to become housekeeper to a priest before marrying Manus at the age of 30. She is cold, un-motherly and unfathomable. His elder brother, Cormac, is selfish, clever and tormenting, and he and Hart spar bitterly whenever they are together. Hart introduces him as:

… a bright young thing. My brother Cormac. His mind was a luxury. The face was rationed, it must be said, but there’s not a body with everything. Part t-rex, part pelican. Picture that menace of features! … When he was twelve he looked twenty. The mind was ahead, too, as I said… But there was the atmosphere of it, knowing every moment something you’d said would be turned inside out like a child’s eyelid to traumatise you… Early on its potential was fearsome, but he cached it away too long, and it curdled.

Cormac ensures that it is Hart who helps his father on the farm and cares for him when he needs it. He constantly belittles him and is free with ‘a clobber to the head’ if he asks questions. But Hart is clever in his own way. He loves plays and, at the moment, scorns ‘Noel Coward or Wilde on about pomp and circumstance, celebrities with silken shirts and trust funds’, and prefers to ‘hear tales of people who are worse off than ourselves’, like those by Beckett, about ‘some poor sod getting stuck in a mound of earth for the rest of her life for she can’t be bothered to dig herself out’. And, as Hart says, he has ‘the looks’ and can pull the girls. He takes Dolly, a young aspiring actress, from Cormac and together they enjoy a full but brief sex life before Dolly returns to her home town in Galway. From there, she writes Hart enigmatic and funny letters.

The first dark moment in the book comes when Hart, Cormac, and their friend Shane take revenge on the sheep-farming property owner, an old school mate of their father’s, who, when the good times in Ireland seemed never-ending, persuaded the Chief to invest in ‘a villa in Malaga with a shared swimming pool and a dishwasher and a motorised awning and oversize tiles’. While Cormac and Shane slaughter this man’s valuable spring lambs, Hart, who is terrified of dogs, stays in the car. Then Shane gives Hart a gory lesson in skinning them, and, at Hart’s insistence, they:

… leave the splattered guts for Morrigan to slip on and learn what his like done to men like our father. Seeing in Shane’s gittish expression that he might not have grasped it, I added: ‘It’s metaphorical-like. For gutting the economy.’

What makes the most disturbing theme of the book, however, is the Chief’s decision to die and to recruit his sons to help him do it. Hart is torn apart by love and grief for his father, and although the process of assisting this suicide is matter-of-factly researched and discussed by the Chief and all his family, it is Hart who, at the last moment, has to ensure its success.

Hart’s account of the subsequent arrest and trial of Nora, Cormac and himself is told in his usual vivid way. And the final twist to these events, and the eventual outcome, are left to the final pages.

I found this to be a beautifully written, funny, but disturbing book. Not just because of the way the subject of assisted suicide is handled, but also because of the continual bitterness between Hart and his brother, who unfeelingly makes use of the fact that Hart dearly loves his father and will do anything for him. In the words of the local priest during the trial, Hart, thought Manus a saint, which is a rare attitude for a child who has been overly relied upon’.

In her acknowledgements, Caoilinn Hughes writes that in 2013, ‘Mary Fleming challenged the [Irish] Supreme Court to establish a constitutional right to die, hastening a long overdue conversation.’ This book makes a powerful contribution to that conversation.

Caoilinn Hughes The Wild Laughter Oneworld 2020 HB 208pp $36.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (// are archived by the British Library

You can buy The Wild Laughter from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.