This winner of the 2021 RSL Ondaatje Prize contemplates the events of 1996 in rural Ireland, where a group of men called "the Butchers" roam from farm to farm, enacting ancient methods of cattle slaughter at a time when old-world traditions are fading fast. Their activities profoundly influence the community around them, including Úna, a Butcher's daughter, her mother Grá, nonbeliever Fionn and photographer Ronan.
Some of the current affairs land with a clunk...and the TV or radio are forever giving plot-relevant updates. But Gilligan makes her characters believable and sympathetic, and by setting the careful, intensely personal killing by the butchers against the profit-driven industrial farming that brought BSE into the food chain, she creates a pungent contrast that powers her novel. There’s much to relish in her language, too ... There’s a rich fascination with food and nature, as well as the threat of violence. The Troubles exist at a distance, and it’s refreshing to read a book about love and conflict in Ulster that doesn’t feature paramilitaries ... There are plenty of threads running through the novel, and they aren’t all convincingly resolved. But this strange and poignant book grips throughout, offering a vivid portrait of one of Ireland’s less heralded corners.
... pacy and evocative ... Gilligan’s backdrop of heart-stopping rural beauty and changing seasons...is laced with fear and menace ... Gilligan is a master plotter, although there is a forced resolution to some of the back stories ... Filial attachment is sweetly rendered...and its counterpart, distance: achingly so in the case of Fionn and Davey, in one of the novel’s affecting final chapters.
Jumping between periods, the novel locates stark contrasts in a country bound by history that also struggles to accept the changes from the outside world. Laws change with speed, including the decriminalization of homosexuality and the legalization of divorce. This results in a complex backdrop for the characters’ struggles ... The fascinating world of the cattle industry is also a factor, with a Mad Cow Disease scare that plays into the story of the Butcher. Written from multiple points of view, the book is populated by colorful local phrases ... Its characters, from the gruff Butcher to a nerdy overachiever, are gritty and believable. As each hurtles toward their destiny, the tension grows; the pieces come together in a conclusion that is brutal yet redemptive.