The old man and the young boy, struggling to make their way through an unforgiving environment. It’s a story you’ve heard before, likely read and enjoyed before, but in Ryan Dennis’s debut, The Beasts They Turned Away, everything familiar is made eerily different.
The novel follows Iosac Mulgannon, a farmer, who is taking care of an unnamed young boy in rural Ireland. The boy, for his part, wears a cow’s skull wherever he goes and is mute. The combination of these two elements leads villagers nearby to view him with caution and suspicion, even so far as thinking the boy is cursed. There are meddling people, strange natural occurrences, and simple ordinary struggles that weigh down on Iosac and the boy, the novel slowly revealing the complexities of tight-knit communities.
This is Ryan Dennis’s first book, and the care and research he’s put into this singular community is impressive. In parts the novel draws from his own life: he grew up on a dairy farm in the US and later moved to Ireland, where he completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the National University of Galway. As such, the farming elements of the novel are intelligently and fluently written. For those of us lacking that background, it’s tempting (and I’d encourage it) to take to the dictionary and read into some of the lesser-known details sprinkled throughout – there are some fascinating Wikipedia spirals to enter, and Dennis, for his part, won’t pause to explain every element in the story. Which is for the best: the novel reads like you have been invited in as a guest, always slightly apart from the story, arms-length away, always guessing at what might happen next.
There’s something harshly poetic about the environment Dennis presents us with – think Hughes, think Cormac McCarthy, think desolate and damning but still someone’s home, somewhere with character. Its short chapters suit the book well. This is a book that should be savoured, with stunning lines every other page that will ring long after you’ve put it down. Dennis himself described his aims as a “specific disjointed and jarring type of prose.” In that way he has most definitely succeeded: it’s a harsh read, but this is tonally perfect for the story he provides.
For all that’s been said about the strangeness of the book – and it is strange, a little unhinged and borderline uncomfortable at times – there’s also a familiarity. Perhaps that best describes the relationship many have with these kinds of close-knit communities: a strange familiarity that is both comforting and claustrophobic, weary but energising. There are some wonderfully kind characters in the novel – Iosac, for his part, is wonderful, as well as the various men and women who come to his farm to talk and offer help throughout, each in their small ways – that help offset the general dour tone of the novel. Maybe there’s something about dairy farms in the air right now: last year’s Booker winning The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld also made for heavy reading, though between the two Ryan Dennis’s take feels subtly lighter, with a focus on community that helps it rise above the purely tragic. This is not a sad tale, a eulogy for a dead community. It is a call to action, a rallying cry around a struggling one.
‘The Beasts They Turned Away’ is published by Époque Press, available now: https://www.epoquepress.com/online-store/The-Beasts-They-Turned-Away-p250895880.
About the Author
Zoë Wells (she/her) is a Swiss-British writer and poet based in the UK. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, having previously received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick. She is working on a debut historical fiction novel, alongside a poetry pamphlet, and has had her short fiction and nonfiction published in a number of magazines. Find her on twitter at @zwells_writes or visit her website.