Books

We Are Not in the World by Connor O’Callaghan: Prose to be savoured

A story doesn’t have to travel far to make a strong impression, says Patrick Maxwell

Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World has a “seemingly unremarkable premise” which sees Paddy drive a truck around Europe. Image credit: Public Domain Pictures / Pixabay

Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World has a “seemingly unremarkable premise” which sees Paddy drive a truck around Europe. Image credit: Public Domain Pictures / Pixabay

Novels thin on plot always rely on their language for survival; barely any writers can get away with staying still for a whole book. If it works, then any more development would feel overwhelming: think of Beckett’s world, where nothing seems to happen, but in its stillness rests the power, inviting us to hang on to every movement.

Conor O’Callaghan’s new novel We Are Not in the World is not quite so static, yet carries the same effortlessness and trenchant depth of feeling, despite its seemingly unremarkable premise. Paddy, driving a lorry through Europe for a suspicious new employer, reminisces about his past love life and its consequences, while his daughter hides in the back of his truck.

Their conversation, which is where the real action lies, flows seamlessly, mixing humour, regret, spite, mockery. It lightens up the journey, as they switch between service stations and long motorways on a job that shows no sign of being fulfilled. 

Paddy’s daughter Kitty tries to extract reasonings from her reticent father for her troubled childhood, but never gets far, their talk drifting on to casual jokes, memories, and repeated tales of Irish folklore. Sentences trail off, their endings left unfinished but obvious, as the two jostle wittily over the dark pretences. A stretch of the banal could easily pervade this book, but O’Callaghan’s writing is so precise, so penetrating and endearing, that it all comes together in a gripping way.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription. 

91CTFDcsDYL
We Are Not in the World by Conor O'Callaghan.

Barely anything happens; Paddy remembers his mother, he imagines speaking to his former partner about her own past, the prose switches back to his daughter, and her sarcastic questioning. But the language of this novel makes it memorable; the melancholy mix of self-deprecation as Paddy recounts his own words, playing with his own ordinary expressions and feelings, dragging the mundane out into a perfectly expressed light. 

“Whither the plan, big guy”, says Kitty at one point, a tone sharply contrasted by her father when he contemplates how “Time does what time does best… slips underneath and gets sucked into a pinhole of past.” 

As the truck rolls on, so does their conversation and Paddy’s own journey into the past. He thinks of his time in America, Britain and France, but all of his tales and recollections have their roots in Ireland, a place to which he feels he can never return. The frequent retellings of the folktale of the “land of youth” help him to hark back to his own, but this book never slides into drab nostalgia; it’s continually enlivened by the vitality of its dialogue, and its languid, playful ingenuity of expression. Although a niche may have recently formed for such books of Irish fiction, O’Callaghan’s remarkably distinctive voice and elegiac prose is certainly something original, to be savoured. 

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss
Books

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel
Books

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know