Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th September 2019 from Orenda Books. Available in e-book now
John Docherty’s mother has just been taken into a nursing home following a massive stroke and she’s unlikely to be able to live independently again. With no other option than to sell the family home, John sets about packing up everything in the house. In sifting through the detritus of his family’s past he’s forced to revisit, and revise his childhood.
For in a box, in the attic, he finds undeniable truth that he had a brother who disappeared when he himself was only a toddler. A brother no one ever mentioned. A brother he knew absolutely nothing about. A discovery that sets John on a journey from which he may never recover.
For sometimes in that space where memory should reside there is nothing but silence, smoke and ash. And in the absence of truth, in the absence of a miracle, we turn to prayer. And to violence.
Shocking, chilling and heartbreakingly emotive, In the Absence of Miracles is domestic noir at its most powerful, and a sensitively wrought portrait of a family whose shameful lies hide the very darkest of secrets.
Michael J Malone is one of those writers whose work is seriously under-estimated by some. I suspect it’s because all his recent books have been stand-alones that the cumulative impact of his work isn’t better known. But believe me, it should be.
Malone isn’t an easy writer to categorise; already that makes him more interesting. In the Absence of Miracles is a domestic noir, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a book that quietly and sensitively peels back the layers of a series of dysfunctional relationships, ever so gently sets about exposing the raw nerves, then pokes them with a sharp pin.
John Docherty is a middle aged man in a two year relationship with attractive single parent, Angela. He’s a secondary school English teacher who has never married. Angela tells him that he’s a commitment phobe and he acknowledges that there may be some truth in that.
In this first person narrative, Malone gives us the picture of a man who has a decent life, a good job and a woman who loves him. Yet John Docherty is a bit of a loner. A man who drinks just a wee bit too much, too often and whose headaches recur with annoying frequency.
It is while he is sorting out his mother’s house following her stroke that he stumbles across a huge mystery that sets him on a path from which there is no return.
Together with his younger brother, Chris, John Docherty goes on on a trail that leads to a series of dark and disturbing revelations.
In the Absence of Miracles is an exploration of a deeply difficult area, seldom touched on anywhere, such is the sense of shame attached to it. Malone deals with it sensitively and his depiction of John Docherty, a man whose psyche is impaired because of the trauma he has suffered, is magnificently portrayed through his cognitive dissonance. Docherty doesn’t know it, but the mental stress and discomfort he experiences are the product of years of suppressing the truth. When confronted by new information that conflicts with his existing beliefs, things are bound to get worse before they get better.
Malone gives us the slow disintegration of Docherty as part of a picture that breaks the heart at the same time as it tests our prejudices.
In the Absence of Miracles is in a similar vein to Malone’s earlier work, A Suitable Lie, insofar as he shines a light on an oft ignored, undiscussed social issue and explores it with depth and sensitivity and a very real understanding of the emotional core at the centre of his character’s lives.
Verdict: In the Absence of Miracles is a brave and compelling work from a writer of depth and sensitivity. Beautifully written, substantial and heart-breaking, it is an astonishingly powerful novel for our time. Everyone should read it.
Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country, just a stone’s throw from the great man’s cottage in Ayr. Well, a stone thrown by a catapult.
He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. His career as a poet has also included a (very) brief stint as the Poet-In- Residence for an adult gift shop.
Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. Other published work includes: Carnegie’s Call (a non-fiction work about successful modern-day Scots); A Taste for Malice; The Guillotine Choice; Beyond the Rage and The Bad Samaritan. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number one bestseller. Michael is a regular reviewer for the hugely popular crime fiction website http://www.crimesquad.com. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller.
More about Michael here.