The Maker of Swans - Paraic O'Donnell

What makes a good gothic novel? On a superficial level at least, Paraic O'Donnell's The Maker of Swans has all the necessary elements in place. There's a sprawling gothic mansion with a fabulous library of rare and esoteric volumes, towers, secret passages and, of course, a few mysterious inhabitants. Aside from the owner, Mr Crowe, a gentleman endowed with "sacred gifts" that see him belonging to a secret order, there's also a young ward in his care who remains silent and has mysterious dreams. There's also, of course, the long suffering manservant who keeps the household from falling apart, and it doesn't take more than a couple of pages into The Maker of Swans to realise that things are about to get out of control very quickly.

Another quality you might expect from a gothic novel is a certain archness in the dialogue, as well as lucidly clear prose with a colourful poetic edge that manages to heighten the fever-dream quality of the setting. Paraic O'Donnell has that down perfectly as he describes the situation on Mr Crowe's country estate, where not only have some unfortunate events occurred, but they portend future ominous developments. Mr Crowe has of late been neglecting his "talents", although quite what those talents are, other than devoting himself to a life of dissolution and pleasure, isn't entirely clear at first. The latest drunken exploit where he has run off with a poet's wife and has shot the husband who has followed them on his grounds, leaves the household with a serious problem.

The problem is not merely that of how to deal with the local authorities - that much Mr Crowe's manservant Eustace could handle without a great deal of effort - but the attention that the incident will attract from rather more dangerous figures in the order that Mr Crowe belongs to, namely the "professor", Dr Chastern. Eustace takes all the necessary steps to prepare for this eventuality. Both he and Mr Crowe have been around a long time to judge by their acquaintances with eminent artistic talents like Byron and Beardsley, but they have somehow seem to have neglected a rather important figure in their midst. Crowe's ward Clara doesn't speak, but has vivid dreams of alternate parallel mirror universes, and in one of these dream realities, she meets another 'Clara' who has the ability to 'make' things, like roses and swans. This oversight on their part turns out to be rather unfortunate.

This brings us to what is perhaps the most significant aspect of what one constitutes a gothic novel. Whether it's 'Wuthering Heights', 'Dracula' or 'Dr Haggard's Disease', the gothic novel is very much concerned with time, with mortality and immortality. Or Death, if you like, but more accurately with the romantic idea of bringing the dead back to life, associated with the horror of the reality of such a notion. This too is the undead heartbeat, so to speak, of The Maker of Swans, when it is revealed that there is someone, or maybe more than one person, who carries around a deep love/regret for someone long dead. Unable to surmount the loss, they hope to find some way to revive, revitalise, recreate or remake that lost person, but the consequences of such a notion are, inevitably, doomed to a tragic end.

Those themes are consistent with the trappings of the gothic novel, and Paraic O'Donnell finds his own way through them with considerable flair, but there's also very much a literary aspect to the theme of creation and the idea of immortality in The Maker of Swans. One way of achieving such a state is of course to create an immortal work of art, one that binds up all the love, loss and imperfection of living and transforms it into a thing of perfect beauty. The duty of art, as one figure describes it, must be "to assemble the tissues of beauty for itself. It must construct its own rose from the raw air, endow it with its colour, its weight, its tender volutes - even to its scent. Art must set this thing before us, must assent to reality in the void of our disbelief. It must make it live". The nature of the person who makes this observation in The Maker of Swans however suggests that there is a darker side to such ambitions, and Paraic O'Donnell explores them brilliantly in this impressive debut.

Last updated: 04/05/2018 15:12:39

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