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Darling Jim: A Novel Paperback – March 2, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Like the itinerant Irish storyteller at the crux of this riveting novel, Danish-born author Moerk mixes mythology, Arthurian legend, fairy tales, noir and horror in his American debut. When reclusive Moira Hegarty and her two nieces, Fiona and Róisín Walsh, are found dead in Moira's secluded home in a Dublin suburb, evidence suggests the sisters were imprisoned for months by their aunt, along with a third person, perhaps Róisín's twin sister. The young women left behind two diaries, one of which a postal clerk finds. Three years before, they fell under the spell of Jim Quick, a séanachai (or bard), whose tales of wolves and kings gave him rock star status in the sleepy town of Castletownbere. Only the Walsh sisters appear to have seen beyond the charm of darling Jim, whose presence coincides with several women's murders. Moerk tightly meshes each separate plot strand—the murders, the diaries and Quick's tales—into an enthralling story that never falters. Author tour. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
It’s tough enough to make a story within a story work, let alone a story within a story within a story. But Moerk manages nicely in his first novel, which opens with gruesome death. An affable mail carrier in a small Irish village grows uneasy enough about the occupant of one of the houses on his route to venture inside. His discovery of the dead home owner is only the beginning; when garda officers arrive, they find the corpses of two emaciated young women, obviously held captive in the home. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy remain a mystery—until another postman, a particularly curious one, discovers a diary written by one of the young women. The horrifying tale that unfolds as he reads introduces him to three (yes, three) very different sisters, their vulnerable aunt, and a charismatic, itinerate seanchaí, Darling Jim, whose darkly compelling stories of brothers, wolves, a princess, and a transformation turn out to be less fantastical than they appear. Bringing together elements of love, lust, murder, betrayal, madness, and secrets, Moerk does some irresistible storytelling of his own. --Stephanie Zvirin --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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The title character, Jim, is an itinerant storyteller, who weaves magical sexual fairy tales in pubs, seemingly just for the coins which he can collect from his enthralled listeners. But Jim earns more than pocket money from his stories. He earns sexual favors from fascinated women, and he captures their hearts with his charm and wit. One evening he rides his vintage red motorcycle into the village where three sisters and their frumpy aunt live.
The oldest sister, Fiona, the first narrator of the story of "Darling Jim" is a bored schoolteacher who shares one incredibly lustful night with Jim. He moves on without a backward glance the next day. Jealous, Fiona follows him to his next storytelling engagement where he picks up another woman. Fiona follows the couple, and thinks that she has discovered that Jim and an accomplice are not just con men, but robbers and serial murderers. But when she finds out that she is mistaken -- or at least it seems so -- she becomes a laughingstock to everyone in town except her younger twin sisters, Aoife and Roisin.
However Fiona is not wrong about Jim's true nature. And when Jim diabolically insinuates himself into the lives of these three sisters by seducing and proposing marriage to their gullible aunt, their lives change forever. After threatening Fiona, and then committing a brutal rape against one of the twins, Jim's dark persona causes the sisters to descend into a nightmare of murder, torture and death.
Although this is a grisly story, it is wonderfully written. Told from beyond the grave by several of the main characters, the story is full of unexpected twists and elegant foreshadowings of the novel's horrible happenings. The foreshadowing makes the ultimate fates of the characters seem satisfyingly inevitable -- and the technique also makes the story very immediate and realistic. The author is erudite in his use of language. I found myself reading with pen in hand so I could mark especially well-worded phrases, such as describing the town as having "professionally cute storefronts."
Literary references to death and suffering add to the dark pull the story has on the reader. For instance, the young postal worker, Niall, who finds and reads Fiona's diary discovers it in the dead letter bin, evoking Melville's doomed "Bartleby the Scrivener."
I loved this gothic novel, and I recommend it to anyone who shivers with glee at the thought of a damp moor on a wild Irish night, full of thumps and strange footsteps, and perhaps an unearthly creature or two.
What happens in the beginning is this: a mailman in a small Irish town, a lonely fellow named Desmond, is surprised when all of a sudden one of the older ladies on his route, a lady who used to invite him in for tea regularly, begins to snub him. Her name is Moira Walsh, and though she's always been a bit of a recluse, she was usually quite kind to Desmond. After the snubbing began, Desmond would walk by her house delivering the mail and often hear strange sounds coming from inside -- thumps and moans -- and once even saw a fluttering at an upstairs window that looked maybe, sort of, possibly? like a young girl? But he never bothered to knock, or to listen harder, or to ask questions.
And so, of course, he is devastated by the guilt that hits when the brutally slain body of Mrs. Walsh is found inside one morning a few weeks later. But it gets worse -- upstairs, the coppers find the starved and broken bodies of her two 20-something nieces, Fiona and Róisín, both clearly tortured, held hostage, and steadily poisoned with rat bait over the span of several months. When Fiona finally tried to make a break for it, stabbing her aunt in the chest with a sharpened screwdriver, Moira still managed to take her down before gasping her last breath herself. And Róisín's organs failed, either shortly before or shortly after Fiona's escape attempt, eaten away by the systematic poisoning. Three women dead -- and one other sister still missing -- BUT WHY?
You can see how I got sucked in, right?
Desmond quits his job, traumatized, and we never hear from him again. He's replaced by a younger man, Niall, who spends most of his time both on and off the job sketching wolves and drawing comics. One day, purely by chance (chance being the primary plot device in this novel, I'm sorry to report), he discovers in the dead letter bin a journal that Fiona had written while a captive. Having heard the stories of the Walsh house, he immediately begins to read it. And when he later comes upon a similar journal written by Róisín, jackpot!, we finally get the complete story of what led to the girls' capture and torment by their aunt.
And what a laaaaaame, unbelievable story it was. It has to do with a "handsome stranger" (yawn) who rides into town one afternoon on a noisy motorcycle and proceeds to charm the sense right out of every women in town, including Aunt Moira and Fiona. By the time it becomes clear to the Walsh sisters that he's the kind of bastard the world would be better off without, it's too late for Aunt Moira, who's been completely duped by his attention and cons.
Part of Jim's initial charm is that he's a seanchaí -- an Irish storyteller -- and he travels around from pub to pub in the area telling a cliffhangery tale of twin princes, one of whom gets turned into a wolf by a curse when he kills his crippled brother (golly gee, what a coincidence that Niall is also obsessed with wolves!). This tale sort of ends up making sense when you get to the end of the book and discover it was somewhat of an allegory for Jim's life with his own twin. But the problem is, every plot point carrying us to that finale is based on an unbelievable series of lucky stumbles. Characters do a ridiculous number of things that make no sense, and Niall somehow manages to blunder his way all the way to the root of it all, primarily because the author shoves every clue right into his face. And into ours.
There's no suspense to this story whatsoever. You know it'll all be resolved -- in fact, you can tell the author can't wait to resolve it for you, he's so pleased with his own cleverness. But while the actual story wasn't too bad, the writing was flat and dull and the characters don't stand out in any way. The sisters were all a blur, even though the author tried to describe their personalities to us more than once -- he told us, he didn't show us, and that's Creative Writing 101, brother.
What's more, I found I just didn't care about any of them; they had no emotional depth whatsoever (one exception was the girls' cop friend, who deserved more of a role than she got). Even worse was that one of the story's final "twists" was so painfully predictable -- and I would guess it would be to any woman reading this story -- it actually made me cringe. Such an intriguing idea for a story, and so blown to bits by such lackluster storytelling. Argh!
And yes, yes, I could've put it down at any point and moved on. Of course I could have. But I was a fool. What can I say? Don't be like me!