Practically from its first page, RED SKY IN MORNING put me in the mind of “Flight” by John Steinbeck. The themes of the two works are similar --- honor, coming of age and revenge, to name but three --- yet they are ultimately very different works, though united by the common yoke of tragedy. One has the sense, from the very beginning, that the story is going to end badly; the only issue is to what degree and extent.
RED SKY IN MORNING is a literary work, a historical novel that is somewhat similar in style to the early novels of Cormac McCarthy. Comparisons between McCarthy and author Paul Lynch are inevitable, though Lynch, in this amazing and mesmerizing debut work, is perhaps a bit more accessible. Set in 1832, the book is divided into three parts.
"This is one of those rare books that is simple in its plot, rich in its detail and characterization, and memorable in its dialogue and characterization."
Part I begins in Donegal, Ireland, with a young husband and father named Coll Coyle, who is beyond angry. He and his family face eviction from the home that his father built. The driving force behind this unfortunate turn of events is Hamilton, the son of the landowner. Against his wife’s best advice, Coyle searches out Hamilton in the hopes of persuading him to abandon the proceedings. Hamilton refuses to hear him out; the quarrel between the two men becomes physical and quickly ends in Hamilton’s unintended death.
Coyle is forced to go on the run, a mad, unplanned and ill-thought-out dash with the devil himself on his trail. The devil takes the form of John Faller, Hamilton’s mentor (and perhaps something more) who is single-minded in his quest to exact a swift and terrible revenge upon Coyle. In desperation, Coyle takes passage on a ship, any ship, and by circumstance finds himself on a boat to the United States.
Part II of the story occurs on the ship and documents the long and horrendous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the East Coast of America. Coyle’s immediate and very general intent is to gather some resources in America and then return to Donegal to rejoin his family. The question, however, is whether he can survive the passage, which is fraught with danger from disease and his fellow passengers.
In Part III, Coyle obtains employment as a railroad laborer. He soon finds, though, that the backbreaking work is the least of his problems as the terror that pursued him in Ireland has tracked him to the United States and will be satisfied with nothing less than his death. It is near the end of Part III that Hamilton’s reason for evicting Coyle and his family is revealed, making the events that occur during the course of the book all the more tragic and senseless.
RED SKY IN MORNING is a relatively short work for the subject matter (it numbers less than 300 pages), but Lynch hardly skimps on description or story. This is one of those rare books that is simple in its plot, rich in its detail and characterization, and memorable in its dialogue and characterization. I look forward to much more from Lynch --- he has a second novel scheduled for publication in late 2014 --- but if he never wrote another word, this debut would cement his reputation as one of this era’s great authors. It is not to be missed, a somber, disturbing vignette in the closing days of a bitter year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 7, 2013