REVIEW: The Butchers, Ruth Gilligan #BLOGTOUR

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

A photograph is hung on a gallery wall for the very first time since it was taken two decades before. It shows a slaughter house in rural Ireland, a painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall, a meat hook suspended from the ceiling - and, from its sharp point, the lifeless body of a man hanging by his feet. The story of who he is and how he got there casts back into Irish folklore, of widows cursing the land and of the men who slaughter its cattle by hand. But modern Ireland is distrustful of ancient traditions, and as the BSE crisis in England presents get-rich opportunities in Ireland, few care about The Butchers, the eight men who roam the country, slaughtering the cows of those who still have faith in the old ways. Few care, that is, except for Fionn, the husband of a dying woman who still believes; their son Davey, who has fallen in love with the youngest of the Butchers; Gra, the lonely wife of one of the eight; and her 12-year-old daughter, Una, a girl who will grow up to carry a knife like her father, and who will be the one finally to avenge the man in the photograph.

As someone who has no day-to-day interactions with cows or their produce (I don’t eat beef, milk, cheese etc), I initially went into Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers believing that it would fill a niche more than a little outside of my wheelhouse. Its cover is eye-catching, its subject even more so and, to untrained eyes (ie me a few years ago), its complexity and wonder could have been brushed aside for something a little more conventional and - dare I say it - more commercial. But, this is literary fiction at its finest: high art in written form; social commentary at its most damning. Because, though the subject was more than a little obscure, its central themes remained oh-so-close to my shrivelled heart.
In vibrant, beautifully-crafted prose (seriously, if you are on the fence, go and find it in a bookstore and read the first few pages because wow), Gilligan uses the short novel’s pages to paint an unforgettable picture of the mad cow disease epidemic of the mid-1990s (I know, right? It could not have been more timely). Furthermore, it charts the proceeding boom and crash of the Irish beef markets, its modern espionages and schemes, and the continuing prevalence of long-held Irish traditions, it all of their conflicting glory. It is battle right from the off, if only in the strangest of terms, and one so exciting and nail biting that I never thought it would come from a subject that is such an longstanding part of everyday reality.
And, yes, I mean cows and the fight to be at the top of the beef market food chain. After-all, it is baffling how Machiavellian even the smallest parts of society is when you are so used to overlooking them. But, through its examination of the sociological, political and economic impacts of the crisis, The Butchers scope unfurls to encompass one of the widest and most alive portrayals of Irish culture that I have experienced since reading Anna Burns’ The Milkman.
Because, through it all, it is a novel of antitheses: of traditional and modern, rural and urban, rich and poor. And, in startlingly vivid detail, it flawlessly examines the lengths that people will go to, both to keep traditions alive as well as to watch them fall.

Thanks to Atlantic Books and Anne Cater for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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