The Little Hammer by John Kelly

DATE FINISHED: July 29th, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  When he is 9 years old, the artist despatches a paleontologist he meets on the beach by means of his hammer.  When he returns home, his saint-worshipping Grandmother colludes in covering up the crime, which has remained undiscovered as the artist enters his thirties – but it keeps re-surfacing, with the compulsion to confess jarring against the fact of getting away with murder.  Following a trip with the mysterious Billie Maguire during which the artist is filmed telling a farcical and falsified version of his life story, the statue of the Holy Infant of Prague finds its way to the Grandmother’s home in Ireland.  In her little village, miracles occur just as the artist’s life and mind begin to unravel.

THOUGHTS:  Told in the swirling Irish vernacular of the archetypal storyteller at the bar – “Would you believe me if I told you…?” – one would be forgiven for mistrusting the narrator from the beginning.  The facts dance and circle in and around the artist’s childhood on wave after wave of witty, wordy and wandering prose designed to captivate and misdirect.  As more and more is revealed about the artist’s childhood, the Granny’s extremes and the father’s moo-moo slaughtering day job, the reader questions more and more exactly where the truth lies.

Kelly is a born entertainer, and the child’s eye view of growing up in small-town Ireland is funny and playful.  In some ways it is a cliched vision of boyhood: playing on the streets, a potted hagiography, misunderstanding the grown-ups for comic effect; but there is something more afoot, something that is coming to light through the artist’s prolific, colourful and critically acclaimed output.  What is he really trying to say?  What is he really hiding?  And does he have any idea himself?

The rollercoaster up and down of wordplay resolves mysteries in unexpected ways and entertains the reader from start to finish with a thoroughly original romp through memory and madness: a murder mystery like you have never met before.

FOLLOWING ON:  Although the subjects couldn’t be more different, Kelly’s playful prose is remisicent of Ali Smith in girl meets boy.  The Granny’s obsession with the saints, meanwhile, has parallels in Salvage by Jane Kotapish.

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