Book Review: Thirsty Ghosts – Emer Martin


Posted 8 months ago in Book Review

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There are very few books that I find myself compulsively recommending to absolutely everyone I know. Emer Martin’s formidable Thirsty Ghosts is one of these few.

Thirsty Ghosts follows in the historical footsteps of Martin’s previous novel The Cruelty Man, and whilst certain places and characters reintroduce themselves, Thirsty Ghosts is just as compelling as a standalone.

“Martin has managed to capture an emotional history of Ireland since the birth of time”

It’s hard to give a concise plot synopsis here as Martin has managed to capture an emotional history of Ireland since the birth of time — in just one novel. Thirsty Ghosts explores the intertwined lives of the complex O’Conaill and Lyon families, whose generations span tumultuous periods, from Jewish Immigration, Mother and Baby homes to the Troubles. In between these observations, Martin weaves a myriad of stories from ancient Irish voices; ‘The Hag’, ‘Bogman’, ‘Prince Alfrid’ in ACE 680, to ‘Caitriona’ in 1574. Initially this ‘ping-ponging’ narrative seems distracting, but rather than diminishing the present, Martin has instead amplified it with unfathomable layers of history.

Throughout Thirsty Ghosts I am reminded of a quote from Manchán Magan’s seminal Thirty Two Words for Field. He writes that, in modern Ireland, we have lost ‘the ability to find the magic that has always underlain all things’. In Thirsty Ghosts, Martin has bestowed an intimate voice to the fear that we have lost our easy access to magic. Young Deirdre Lyon, living in Cavan in 1975, notices, ‘it instinctively. Nothing lasted. The fields behind us got buried by the motorway. The lane I walked to school was gone….We watched the countryside behind our house swallowed and changed utterly, utterly changed.’

It is not just modern Ireland that has felt this loss. Even in Tudor-occupied Ireland, servant Caitriona mourns, ‘our once-potent world that had seemed so solid’. In Thirsty Ghosts Martin has revealed a consistent symptom of Ireland throughout history — the distinct sense that urbanity and change is in some way contradictory to its magical ancestral nature.

But not all hope is lost. Fionn reflects on his wayward Father, Iggy, whose ‘storyteller’ profession is the cause of so much exasperation for his family, yet also acknowledging that Iggy ‘was keeping the world alive with his telling of it’.

In Thirsty Ghosts, Martin’s penetrating narrative encourages us to see stories as imbued with the power to recreate solid places. By uniting fragmented experiences they are capable of preserving the magic of Ireland. Martin best encapsulates the success of this through the character of Deirdre who realises that ‘the stories bonded us to the land’.

‘Thirsty Ghosts’ is a story of missed chances, of childhood, of politics and power, of inherited pain, of familial love, but most of all it is a story of stories — the mythology that connects us, that supports us and that keeps us alive. In Thirsty Ghosts ‘history is always spiralling around the present.’

Words: Holly Gash 

Thirsty Ghosts

Emer Martin

[The Lilliput Press]

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