Review of Mike McCormack’s This Plague of Souls – a cryptic return to one’s roots.
As the story comes to a close in This Plague of Souls, the main character, Nealon, hears a familiar sound. The world is in flux and it seems like something significant is about to happen. Nealon watches a television, hoping for updates. Suddenly, the news bulletin’s theme music plays. The sound of brass instruments mixed with electronic noises echoes under the ringing of the Angelus bell. This final scene mirrors the beginning of McCormack’s previous book, Solar Bones, where the Angelus bell chimes on All Souls’ Day. The book opens with a poetic description of Marcus Conway, a lonely civil engineer who reflects on his past with vivid detail. This novel, which earned McCormack the Goldsmiths prize in 2016 and was longlisted for the Booker, propelled this talented Irish writer into the literary mainstream.
The novel, Plague of Souls, echoes its predecessor as it begins with Nealon returning to his family’s rural farm in Ireland after a prolonged absence. The opening line of the novel, “Opening the door and stepping inside in the dark activates the phone in Nealon’s pocket,” combines action and a sense of the eerie. A strange male voice, not one you would want to hear in the dark, speaks to him as if they are old acquaintances, assuring him that they will speak again once he is settled. The voice greets him with a simple “Welcome home, Nealon,” suggesting a possible supernatural knowledge of his actions.
Why has Nealon been absent? McCormack skillfully hints at the reason: Nealon desires scrambled eggs, but being served meals on a tray for so long has disrupted his routine. We eventually discover he has been in prison, but the exact reason remains unknown. However, the focus is on Nealon’s introspection as he reintegrates into his life. McCormack’s descriptive language effectively sets a noir tone throughout the book. Nealon is pulled through the house by an almost coercive force, while external pressures complicate his attempts to understand the past and future.
This is the home he grew up in, living only with his father: “a home without any women” – Nealon never knew his mother. However, he did not anticipate returning to a place of darkness and emptiness: “So where is Olwyn? Where has she gone?” Olwyn is his wife, the mother of his young son Cuan, both of whom are missing. Haunting memories depict Nealon saving Olwyn from her addiction to heroin; his son suffered from nosebleeds, a minor domestic issue that becomes ominous in Nealon’s memory as he recalls sitting “on the edge of the bathtub in the early hours of the morning, watching the water turn pink with his child’s blood”.
The first third of the novel consists of these memories. In the following part, Nealon leaves early in the morning to go to a nearby city for a meeting, looking forward to the enjoyable experience of driving. Similar to Solar Bones, McCormack showcases his talent for describing landscapes and situations that may not seem attractive, but are appreciated by the author’s keen observation. Nealon slows down as he approaches a recently paved road that cuts through a charming village. The entrance is indicated by traffic lights and the sides are adorned with delicate lanterns. Nealon compares it to sacred ground. The road is so smooth that it almost feels like the car is floating, giving the illusion of flight.
In the conclusion of the story, Nealon is getting ready to face a highly significant meeting, the details of which are being kept secret. A major world event, known only as “this terror thing”, is unfolding as he prepares for this encounter. This final section of the novel brings together the enigmatic threads that have been woven throughout. Not only do we begin to understand Nealon’s past and its potential implications, but McCormack skillfully connects all the pieces together. Small glimpses into other characters’ lives, such as men working on a road and a woman flipping through a catalogue, become relevant to what is about to occur.
Afterwards, we are alerted by the ringing of the Angelus bell, a reminder to pray and spread kindness. This novel is peculiar, both ominous and optimistic, a journey into the unknown that ultimately leads to a bright outcome.