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The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan review – scepticism v superstition | Fiction


An ancient curse warns that if eight men do not touch every cow in Ireland as it dies, pestilence will fall upon the land. And so eight butchers travel from farm to farm, slaughtering cattle by hand for the dwindling number of believers.

One butcher, Cúch, promises that 1996 will be different. And it is: a corpse is found hanging from rusty hooks driven into his feet. Gilligan’s compelling fifth novel is about meat and blood and a secret society. But it’s also about borderlands, wounded families and Ireland’s giddy trot towards the 21st century. The butchers’ solemn dance around the island is complicated by tension with sceptical locals, and Ireland – via the BSE crisis, Euro 96 and the economic boom – is changing fast.

Some of the current affairs land with a clunk (“Mossy was referring to the Divorce Bill that was after going through on Monday”) and the TV or radio are forever giving plot-relevant updates. But Gilligan makes her characters believable and sympathetic, and by setting the careful, intensely personal killing by the butchers against the profit-driven industrial farming that brought BSE into the food chain, she creates a pungent contrast that powers her novel. There’s much to relish in her language, too. A van driver watches out for “the downy thump of death-wish hares”. A character wonders at “bittersweet berries clumped together in fists”. A Victoria sponge is cracked with “great jagged lines that would surely never heal”.

There’s a rich fascination with food and nature, as well as the threat of violence. The Troubles exist at a distance, and it’s refreshing to read a book about love and conflict in Ulster that doesn’t feature paramilitaries. The tension in The Butchers is at once more elemental and more everyday – between a girl and her bullying classmate, a growing boy and his idea of manhood, the harsh lines of folklore and the compromises of modern capitalism.

There are plenty of threads running through the novel, and they aren’t all convincingly resolved. But this strange and poignant book grips throughout, offering a vivid portrait of one of Ireland’s less heralded corners.

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan is published by Atlantic (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

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