January 2009

Alan Kelly


John the Revelator by Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy’s debut novel John the Revelator invites comparison with both Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood and some of his earlier work, most notably The Butcher Boy. The novel invites comparison though, rather than signposting it and John the Revelator stands firmly on its own feet. I have to confess, being from Ireland this novel was the literary equivalent of a slap in the face, and the story imaginatively gets under your skin. It has an ugly creeping dread and until the conclusion you’ll have no idea where it is going to bring you.

“’People don’t care if the story is real or not,’ he said ’as long as they believe it’” remarks one of the characters to the protagonist late in the story. It is this enigmatic quality that is apparent at all times throughout the book, in both theme and characterisation. Peter Murphy casts a deceptive net, using spare yet elegant prose to capture the sheer emptiness and strangeness of existence in a purgatorial wasteland that is more often than not life in an Irish town. A place where teenagers languish about run-down fun fairs, boy-racers torture and humiliate others boys in deserted fields, desecrate churches, have long meandering conversations about poetry and drink themselves into forgetfulness.  

John is a 15-year-old boy yearning to escape the dull confines of small town life, a loner of sorts who mostly stays in the company of his not-quite-fanatical-but-close-enough religious mother Lily and her friend Mrs Hagle, a creepy harridan who even when she’s not on the page can be felt hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the narrative. Meaning is desperately sought but John is rewarded not with a delivery from his misery but a cruel indifference to the circumstances in which he continually finds himself. Plagued by self-doubt and terrifying dream sequences until he befriends Jamie Corbey, a kindred spirit with a reckless side. Almost as soon as Jamie arrives, he is gone, only returning intermittently in the story after he is carted off to a correctional facility after a slight betrayal by John. They continue to communicate through letters (are they fact or fiction or a combination of both?) which imply that there are sinister activities happening all around them. When John’s mother begins to gradually disintegrate and Mrs Hagle moves in, he is bereft and so begins a strange rite of passage. To reveal anymore of the plot would spoil the experience for the reader.

John the Revelator has everything you could possibly want in a novel: mystery, love, fear, friendship, grief. With a pitch-perfect ear for Irish dialect, the novel is peppered with gossipy anecdotes, characters all to willing to offer some sort of revelation, regardless of whether it is relevant to the plot or not. Murphy has a crafty hand at creating characters who harbour secrets. One of the only problems I had with this novel is that I became quite confused by parts of it -- although without that ambiguity, much of the novel's appeal would be lost. I predict this book will be nominated for a plethora of awards, even if for its exquisite strangeness alone.

John the Revelator by Peter Murphy
Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571240208
240 Pages