The ambitious No Country has 10 different narrators, so the reader would be forgiven for losing track of them, especially because several are named after one another. There are at least two Brendans and two Padraigs, as well as the similarly named Maeve and Maire. Opening in 1843 Ireland’s County Sligo, the new novel from Kalyan Ray follows two friends, Brendan and Padraig, as destiny—inconvenient for the characters, convenient for the narrative—sweeps them away from Ireland and toward opposite ends of the earth. Brendan flees the Irish potato famine and ends up in America; Padraig takes refuge on a ship and ends up bound to India. As both set down roots, their adopted and genetic progeny live parallel, occasionally intersecting lives on two different continents. Each narrator is a member of this unlikely tribe, telling their piece of a much larger story—one with terrible consequences. Right from the start, Ray makes it clear this story of interconnection and inheritance ends in death. In fact, the entire novel is framed by the familiar scene of a detective, a dead body or two, and several pools of blood inside a house in New York in 1989. Though that scene is indelible, knowing it’s coming makes the first two-thirds of the book difficult to really enjoy. One keeps waiting for the ax, literally, to fall.
Fate is the real narrator here, and Ray leans on it to do too much of the telling. Chance claims the homes, wealth, and eventually the very lives of the characters. The book is full of near-misses and almosts, but whatever sense of destiny Ray believes in, it takes up too much of the subtext and not enough the actual text. At times, it seems that the whole world is made of just these two families. Brendan and Padraig’s progeny are like a pack of Forrest Gumps—caught in events as diverse yet formative as the Irish potato famine, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. It’s compelling, but it’s inherently heavy-handed.
The problem is that Ray’s novel is not technically well-written. His prose is often beautiful; especially once he’s out of Ireland, the poesy of the sentences is what makes the book worth reading. But the story is not paced or structured as well as it could be. The frame narrative doesn’t work as well as it should, and neither do the shifting points of view. All those narrators offer many details but lack a sense of character—and it’s made worse by Ray’s eagerness to swap out one point of view for another, sometimes just as that person is starting to get interesting. Then, each new character is put in the awkward situation of having to relate their own family history to the reader—“my father is so-and-so; I am named after my grandmother, who was so-and-so,” which is jarring and confusing. If Ray wanted to write a story sweeping through time and space about 10 different people who do not have particularly unique voices, why bother with first-person at all?
Granted, some of the characters do have memorable voices, and their sections carry the book through its muddled other chapters. Devika Mitra is clearly dear to the author, and he has done a fine job making her fierce American-immigrant voice come to life. Similarly unique is the alcoholic and abused Billy Swint. But both of those characters come into play very close to the end of the story, and don’t make enough of a payoff for the slow start.
In fact, No Country reads better moving backward. Ray has a strong sense throughout of how the story should end—and it ends well, if predictably—but less of how it should begin. The original Brendan and Padraig take a long time to get the story going, and aren’t that intriguing on their own. The first third of the book struggles to find itself, investing in side characters that aren’t, as the story continues, particularly important to its own themes.
With this mass of characters, Ray is bound to repeat himself—and he does. There are many lost brothers in this story, and many only children born out of wedlock to desperate mothers. (One of those unexpectedly pregnant women calls herself a “horrible cliché,” with more self-awareness than Ray seems to have.) It reads as if the author began to lean on established tropes in order to try to flesh out the ensemble. The character called Odd Madgy Finn appears to be an Irish version of Dosteovsky’s Reeking Lizaveta, from The Brothers Karamazov; they’re both even raped in much the same way. This is not exactly bad, but it’s predictable, and serves to flatten characters that are already hard to connect with.
In a roundabout way, the repetition of stories and similarities between characters appear to be the book’s point: Racial and linguistic boundaries are erased when every character gets to be the “I” of their own story, and deep down, all the characters, and really all people, are exactly the same—especially in “no country,” that space where humanity is just humanity. Each narrator says, at some point, the phrase “no country” to themselves or another, with varying shades of meaning. It’s a weirdly constructed phrase, but fascinating in its implications.
Despite getting in its own way, Ray’s vision in No Country is wonderful and poignant. The titular phrase offers a vision of the first years of globalization—as colonialism and disease and sailing ships brought worlds together to collide over and over again. Borders are drawn and redrawn; racial politics make biracial citizens first accepted and then anathema. In this world, the characters seek not just survival, but wholeness, a sense of being all parts of themselves—Irish, Indian, Italian, Jewish, American.
At its most powerful, No Country offers the idea that everyone you meet is kindred already—united if not by hidden roots, than at least by the kinship of merely being human. And as it works to invalidate the idea of any kind of boundary or identifying label, it creates a tragic, poetic vision of lost brothers, missing children, and lovers parted. It’s hardly subtle, and the execution could have been better. But the theme, which is blatantly stated by one character, is one the world desperately needs to hear: “We are all related: Our mortality is our one common nation.”