The Captain with the Whiskers by Benedict Kiely

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Reviewed by Julie Barham

When the old captain died the family went strange and it wasn’t with grief, and if you want to know why, you should talk to somebody who knew the old captain.

So begins a strange but immensely readable book of small town Irish life. The captain is not an abusive man in some ways; he is small and outwardly polite. It is the way he treats people, using information against them, lording over the community by sheer force of personality. In a rural area, dominated by the Church and the agricultural cycle, he demeans and dismisses both priest and people. It is his own family he reserves the worse treatment for, however, as he bullies his sons and uses his daughters as servants. His wife is never seen.

The book is narrated, sometimes confusingly, by Owen Rodgers. It is his book in many ways, as he records his life and loves as a young man in a small town. He is the only outsider to know what the captain’s family life is truly like as he visits the farm, catches glimpses of the boys’ sad lives, wonders about the girls who flit in and out like silent servants. He ponders all this as his family life continues along its more relaxed lines. He starts training as a doctor, but begins to realise that his squeamishness is no qualification, and his relationship with the voluptuous Lucy exposes him to another family model.

The book changes direction as the captain suddenly dies. Alfred, the eldest son, becomes a free man, with land and responsibilities. Frank goes for a priest, and Edmund takes up showmanship and shop keeping. The sisters become energised (Maeve) or a nurse (Greta). So far, so good. The damage of their early life emerges as each young person changes and struggles to fit in. Owen’s relationship with each of them is different as he can only watch, help a little, and try to keep in contact.

All of the above sounds pretty depressing, but the setting and other characters of the novel work alongside to show the many sides of life. ‘Be gregarious’, thunders a preacher as he exhorts the young to stay in groups lest walking alone with a member of the opposite sex leads to sin. The priest expounds on life in France as he subsides into frequent alcoholic haze, and the music of the local characters permeates the story. Owen’s friends cause and sort out various crisis, kisses and more are exchanged, and all human life is here. This is a wickedly funny book, which swerves and deviates from the obvious to great effect. It is far from a misery memoir, but exposes the exasperation of life particularly in a society torn between folklore and reality. There is sadness, anger and frustration, but it is also a lively portrait of a society which is losing its way as individuals confront their own demons.

I was surprised how satisfying and engaging this novel was, even though it is not what I would normally read. For a relatively slim novel there is so much to think about, as the tales and pictures emerge flowing in sometimes challenging prose. A good read.

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Julie Barham is still Northern Reader even though she’s moved to a more southerly Vicarage.

Benedict Kiely, The Captain with the Whiskers (Turnpike Books, 2016) 978-0993591303, 288pp., paperback.

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