Must all clergy automatically be distrusted because of the Catholic church’s abominable record of sexual and physical abuse? What about the good priest? Don’t honorable nuns exist? That’s the question Conor O’Callaghan implicitly asks in his recently paperbacked novel, Nothing on Earth. (It’s a very pertinent question given the heated controversy of recent days about the new national maternity hospital and who should own it.)
The first person narrator in Nothing on Earth is a priest – or was one. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. (And perhaps that’s a telling ambiguity.) It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge.
The unnamed narrator is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.
The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. He goes through a dark night of the soul during which he is haunted by ghosts.
Is he in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?
There are obvious comparisons here to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career and also a ghost story. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house. Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.
We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces. If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.
As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence,”
Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him? This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest? Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood? – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt? “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”
Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?
Like all great fiction, Nothing on Earth begs the question, but doesn’t answer it. That’s up to the reader.