The first thing I’ll say about this book is: it made me laugh, people.
It made me laugh because it’s a madcap, rollicking tale, but also because it reminded me so much of the zany weirdness of Flann O’Brien, whose novel At-Swim-Two-Birds is all over this work, and the linguistic artistry of Pat O’Shea, whose masterwork Hounds of the Morrigan has a similar feel to the dialect and dialogue on display here. In terms of the sheer unpredictability of the plot, the rich peppering of myth, mysticism and barely-controlled insanity which flows through it, and the pure belly-shaking fun of it, these two literary giants live on in Nigel Quinlan’s work. It’s so Irish, but it’s meta-Irish; Gaelic in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek way, at once honouring and taking the mick out of the traditions which, deep down, underpin it.
This isn’t to say you need a degree in English literature to appreciate it. Far from it. All you need to get on board with this book is a working sense of humour and an ability to leave your sensible shoes at the door.
Nigel Quinlan’s The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox (Orion, 2015) is the story of the Maloney family, who live in the Irish Midlands. They are siblings Owen, Neil and Liz, along with Mum and Dad, and they run a B&B to make ends meet. However, that isn’t their real role: Mr Maloney is the Weatherman, one of four very powerful beings who exist at the corners of the world and whose role it is to usher one Season in and another out at the appropriate times of year. If this job isn’t done, and done correctly, chaos and all manner of nastiness will ensue. The book is told through the alternating viewpoints of the two older children, Neil and Liz, both of whom are fun and interesting – but particularly Liz, who is a little firecracker armed with a bow and arrow, full of life and a fiery sense of the injustice of the world. I loved her, and I loved how her narrative arc ends up. The story begins just as Summer is supposed to become Autumn, and the family are preparing for the change of Season – but then, for some reason, it doesn’t happen. The expected chain of events doesn’t take place. Instead, they get a Tourist named Ed who turns up out of the blue looking for a room, and two cracked old hags begin to wander in the wood, and a Bog Beast turns up out of nowhere – and to top it all off, the neighbours begin to act very strangely indeed…
Ed is a tourist of magic who knows all about the legend of the Weatherman and is delighted to have found him. The inexplicable hags are straight out of Irish legend (via the aforementioned Flann and O’Shea), changing shape and appearance as the story goes on, and delivering some of the laugh-out-loud dialogue that this book is full of. I’ve read some reviews which compare them to the witch characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but as a lifelong fan of those books I have to admit I didn’t see any resemblance between Pratchett’s witches and these powerful gals at all. They’re far more like the triple-aspect goddess Morrigan in Pat O’Shea’s work, fast-paced and sometimes nonsensical dialogue and all. The Bog Beast (who becomes Neetch the cat, adopted wholesale by the youngest Maloney) is sometimes a terrifying creature and sometimes a tiny kitten, but always interesting to read about. The evil Mrs Fitzgerald, who (along with her brutish husband John-Joe and their odious son Hugh) is the baddie of the piece, is never less than compelling, and her connection to some of the other characters in the story is interesting. The Fitzgeralds live beside the Maloneys, though they’re hardly ‘neighbourly’, and the families have a long and twisty relationship which goes far beyond the usual issues about land ownership and boundary lines and who left grass clippings on whose lawn, and the sort. I really enjoyed reading about the families and how they are connected; these connections deepen as the book goes on.
Some of the book’s mythology – by which I mean its use of the weather and the changing Seasons as a motif – is a bit confusing or vaguely explained (particularly Mrs Maloney, who seems to be a figure of some power in her own right but who we never really learn about properly), and I wasn’t always on board with the need for the role of a Weatherman at all, or why such an arrangement between the powers of nature and humanity was ever arrived at. But this isn’t even important, really. The sheer fun of the story and the relentless pace of the goings-on is more than enough to keep any reader invested. I had so many moments when this book made me genuinely laugh, and I hope the humour would translate well whether you’re an Irish reader or not (though I do think an Irish reader might get a little more out of it than someone of another nationality), and I was particularly amused by the Shieldsmen, who were the traditional guardians of the Weatherman before being unfortunately exiled some years before. When we first meet them, their fast-paced dialogue and verbal eccentricities just carry the reader away, and despite the fact that they’re completely ‘out there’, they were among the most memorable characters for me.
So. Plotting isn’t this book’s strong point, but it more than makes up for that with superb characterisation, cracking dialogue and a great depiction of a flawed but realistic family, prepared to do anything it takes to support and protect one another. The humour and the pace of the action are the cherries on the cake. A definite recommendation for anyone willing to try something a bit different, and for any kid out there who likes Doctor Who, or who is looking for a story which will make them laugh – guaranteed!*
*Refer all claims in relation to this guarantee to Nigel Quinlan, c/o anyone but the proprietress of this blog!