We Are Not In The World, by Conor O’Callaghan, tells the story of Paddy, a middle aged Irishman who dusts off his HGV licence in an attempt to get away from the mess his life has become. The story opens as he crosses the channel from England to France. He has just discovered his twenty-something year old daughter, Kitty, stowed away in his cab. Taking along a passenger is against the rules so she must stay hidden but Paddy welcomes the chance to spend time with her. They have had a difficult relationship since she was teenager, tarnished by a torrid affair and marriage breakdown.
Chapters follow the months of Paddy’s journeying through France, stopping mostly at truckers designated rest areas. He and Kitty stutter between silences and family reminiscences. We learn Paddy’s backstory – of his relationship with his parents and younger brother. The latter is Kitty’s godfather and the family’s golden boy. Paddy understands why but still harbours jealousy.
Interspersed with this unfolding tale are chapters told from the point of view of the other woman. For years she has been orchestrating liaisons for sex – encounters described graphically. Her husband is mostly aware of what is going on but tolerates such behaviour for the sake of their young son. These chapters are placed in reverse chronological order, linking to the reveals of Paddy’s life story.
Neither Paddy nor the woman are likeable characters, their selfish behaviour hurting those they should be caring for. The fallout from their actions is unexpected and poignant. Both have suffered personal tragedies.
There are disturbing scenes around the lives led by HGV drivers, their apparent camaraderie shadowed by bestial undercurrents. Paddy can hide amidst their accepted transience but prefers to keep himself and the grief he carries apart.
“I must have dropped a load at some point, but where and when I can’t remember. There must have been no pick-up. Now we’re just a cab. Now we’re doing what the super in the container at Dover said not to, heavy mileage without a load. A load is family. I see that. The load’s ballast gravitates you to a steady keel. Without it, I have felt all over the shop, buffeted by cross-winds, headlong and not enough to fix me to the ground.”
The story told is spare, haunting and beautifully wrought, despite the oedipal suggestions and sexual explicitness. It is a tale of family, of differing reactions to shared events and upbringing, and how even inevitable deaths can lead to schisms. Paddy may have behaved badly on numerous occasions, but time is shown to pass. The reader will come to realise that alongside regret there can be moments of hope.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.