Sunday, March 12, 2017

Book Review: "Himself" by Jess Kidd

"Mulderrig is a place like no other. Here the colors are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don't want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?"

Mulderrig is a small Irish village, a Brigadoon of sorts. One spring day in 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig from Dublin, where he has lived all of his life. Or most of his life. Because just recently, he found out that one of his chief nemeses at the orphanage where he was raised, Sister Veronica, left him an envelope when she died. And in this envelope was news which changed his life: a picture of him as an infant with his mother, telling him his real name, and that he is from Mulderrig. The note also said that his mother was "the curse of the town," so they took him from her.

For Mahony, who has always been a bit of a rake (yet a handsome one) and a ne'er-do-well, this is powerful stuff. He had believed his mother had abandoned him, but he couldn't understand why, or why she never searched for him. So he heads to Mulderrig to try and uncover the truth about what happened to her 26 years ago.

"He has always believed two things, that his mother was dead and that he had known her. In order to feel her loss he must have known her presence. And he does feel her loss, he always has. Which is why he has been searching for her all his life: because he had loved her and because he had lost her. He'd searched but she'd never answered."

Mahony's return creates quite a stir in Mulderrig for a number of reasons. His physical appearance (even though he's a bit of an unwashed hippie-type) and his newness appeal to women of all ages, who react in unusual ways. His similarities to his mother quickly raise the ire, suspicion, and guilt of those residents who knew her, and might have had a hand in her circumstances. Oh, and his return has also raised the dead, many of whom were alive or around 26 years ago, and only a few people in town, including Mahony, can see and communicate with them.

Teaming up with Mrs. Cauley, an eccentric former theater actress who likes nothing more than to stir up trouble among Mulderrig's residents, Mahony is determined to uncover the truth about his mother. The two concoct a plan to interrogate those who might know something, and hopefully flush out the truth, with the help of some of the town's colorful residents. But this scandal ran far and wide through Mulderrig, and the two might be putting themselves and those they care about in danger as they get closer and closer to the truth.

This is such a charming, magical book, and as quirky as it is, it's quite emotionally moving as well, as it explores the ideas of loss and grief, of a girl trying to rise above circumstances she has been handed although everyone wants to fight her at every turn, and the rejuvenating power of friendship. I know that at its heart, this book is a mystery, but I could have done without its brief foray into actual crime novel territory, even though I understood the point, in showing that even lovely towns like Mulderrig have these types of secrets which many want to remain hidden.

While Jess Kidd spent so much time creating the "good" characters, and they are so tremendously appealing, some of the "bad" characters don't get the same attention, so they feel a little more like stereotypical characters than fully realized. But the beauty of Kidd's storytelling, and the warmth of this book is wonderful, reminding me a bit of those quirky Irish movies like Waking Ned Devine. (In tone, not subject matter.) This is a book which would be absolutely terrific as a movie because there is so much your mind's eye pictures, and it would be great to see that portrayed on screen.

If you're looking for a book with a little bit of charm and whimsy along with its terrific story, pick up Jess Kidd's Himself. In a literary world of copycats, this feels pretty original in many ways.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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