The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
The Wild Laughter is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I read it in two sittings and cried at the end. I couldn’t go to sleep for thinking about it, woke up this morning and read the last chapter again, and then the final two paragraphs a few times more. Then back to the opening paragraph of the book, which means something so much more on the second go, and then cried again. The book keeps breaking my heart, taking my breath away, making me feel so much gratitude for having come across it.
This book is about many things. But at its heart, I think it’s about betrayal. Betrayal of every sort—by families, friends, institutions, and the body. And Hughes sinks that knife into you with astonishing artfulness—she swings from humor to sorrow, from truth to lies, from hope to despair, and all in the context of death and maybe worse. The outer world she creates is as honest as the inner world she describes. The tenderness of her honesty, her bravery in not softening the blow, and her commitment to the human truths in her tale caused this story to burrow deep into my heart, my bones, my memory, my sadness.
The Wild Laughter was a little hard for me to settle into at first. Early on the Irish jokes and words and syntax and turns of phrase were bumps in the road for me—I felt some obligation to sound them out and then to make sure I got the meaning right. Finally I just let it all sail right into my heart and that was the right thing to do. I got immersed.
The Wild Laughter is the story of two brothers, Cormac and Hart Black, who face the demise of their father’s farm at the same time as he is rapidly dying. While these men don’t speak directly to one another about what’s most important, they have their ways of communicating. When Chief (the father) asks Cormac to find out what the Bible has to say about suicide, it’s his way of making it clear that he wants to leave this life on his own terms. The story, narrated by Hart, is how that happens in the middle of an economic collapse in Ireland and the bank’s foreclosure on the farm.
The book is hilarious and heartbreaking in turns. In one minute I laughed out loud and minutes later closed the book on my finger, moaning this is so saaaaaaad. I couldn’t put it down.
Here are some excerpts from The Wild Laughter that illustrate what a skilled writer Hughes is:
Hart’s short description of his mother Nóra tells you so much about her and about Hart’s relationship with her:
On the Easter Sunday in question, she wore her collared, long-sleeved raisin-colored dress from mass with a bloodstained apron over it. She was uniquely equipped for some activity that neither she nor me nor the numen could name. For a minute, I thought she looked handsome, in the hoary way of a fossil—after all, she gave me the nose I have and the long eyelashes—but then, the way her eyes devoured her husband’s face, she looked wicked again.
In a ruse that involves making a false confession to Father Shaughnessy, this is how Hart experiences the priest’s response:
Father Shaughnessy sucked in air through his teeth. “Your brother. Your own brother that you hate.” You could hear the sieve straining lumps out of his crude judgement.
Sucked, sieve, lumps. She’s chosen these words carefully and each word builds to the story’s painful, inevitable end.
Hart is a loving and sentimental son, saddled with helping his father have the death he wants. Hart writes some reflections in a journal to give to him. Here’s how he describes his motivation:
Those were some of the things I wrote for the Chief to show how he’d be remembered. The measure of love I had for him was not unlike the riz biscuits, in the awkward uncontainable way that made it wise to push the batch of it aside and start over for fear of being poisoned by too much swelling.
I remember this feeling of being overcome by too much swelling in my love for someone I knew I was going to lose, but I’d never thought of it as swelling until this reading. Hughes’ cattywampus juxtaposition of an ordinary experience (making riz biscuits in the middle of the night with his father) with Hart’s unbounded love for his dad is unexpected and wonderful.
They take one last holiday at the beach and Hart thinks about what his life will be like without his father:
Sliding down the marram grass, the tears slid likewise. Who’d tell me what I needed to hear tomorrow? Who’d keep an eye on me, or spare me a thought?… I took off my shoes and socks and carried them. It’s good to be reminded of gravity and that the state of falling is plain as day. I felt that and the shiver of an early autumn on my skin, the damp earth coming up to meet me. … The waves pushed in a lip of scum for a reminder of the great chilling world that’s in it, full of razor clams and spiral conches people take home and hold up to their ears to remember their holidays, but all they hear are the hollow qualities of their domestic, logistical lives.
Hughes writes so deeply about family and betrayal and mortality, yet throughout the book she writes hilariously. Here Hart describes rifling through the freezer to find some lamb hearts that he put in there years ago and have migrated to the bottom:
I went to the garage deep freeze and rifled through the snowy sacs of vol-au-vents and plastic bags of five-year-old salmon and sliced pan and tinfoiled ham and mushroom quiches and wholesale ALDI prawns like frostbit infant fingers until I found it. At the freezer’s deepest remit—where a new-age couple might keep their placentas—there they were still, after all these years: the lambs’ livers.
Placentas? I laughed out loud at such a weird detail.
Hart is having a difficult conversation with Gerry, a neighbor, about something disagreeable. Hart describes himself this way:
I swallowed hard. I wished the salt that reached my lips tasted stronger. I wished it strong enough to blind me.
Impossible not to understand what he’s feeling, to remember a time when I felt that way myself.
Finally, this excerpt of a letter written to Hart by Dolly, a woman who works at a call center and with whom he’s falling in love. She lives in another town and wants him to come live with her. She writes him lots of letters and in this one, in a letter that you only know the irony of much later, she gives her description of Nóra, Hart’s mother:
You must be drained. I can’t even imagine…though not for want of trying. Do write back, Hart. Tell me everything. How on earth are you surviving in that house all alone with your mother? Does she ever take off that costume she goes around in? The emblematic Shan-Van-Vocht outfit. Self-sacrificing, loyal, ascetic, moralistic, with shoulder pads of indignation. Sorry to say she has nobody convinced. Except maybe you. She wears it so tight, it’s as if she wants to cut off the blood supply to her whole lower body, lest it betray her. What service was it she provided the priest again before she married? Housekeeping? Anyway, sorry, it’s just hard to watch women like that vacate themselves.
I love this book. When I was done, I went back to the first chapter to read it with new eyes. It’s last sentence reads: Determining the depth of rot that’s blackening the surface can’t always be left to deities or legislators—sometimes what’s needed is to tie a string around the tooth and shut the door lively.
And that’s what Hughes does is the remaining 194 pages.
The other day a friend told me that we could only read about 5,000 books in our lives, so we have no business reading so-so books. I’m no slouch at math, so I did the simple division. If I lived to be 100 years old I would have to have read 50 books a year from Day One in order to achieve that goal. So, while the math is off, it only adds to the urgency to read only the best books. For me, The Wild Laughter is one of them. I expect it will also be my next read because the second time through I will understand it in a whole new way.
You can order The Wild Laughter from your local bookstore. Or you can order it here:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >