This consummately Irish character novel by 38-year-old Donal Ryan takes place during the property "bubble" which led eventually to Ireland's economic collapse in the early twenty-first century. Johnsey Cunliffe, a shy innocent, is devastated when he is suddenly orphaned and has no life skills to sustain himself. Always insecure, he has always thought of himself as a hopeless "gom," bullied unmercifully, before and after school, by "a dole boy" and some of the other thugs in town. Although he has inherited a large piece of farmland, it has been leased to neighbor Dermot McDermott, and seeing McDermott lording it around on the Cunliffe property only adds to Johnsey's "dead-quiet loneliness" as he copes with the "noisy ignorance" of McDermott and "his fancy farm machinery."
Scenes appear out of chronological order and gradually convey Johnsey's past history; at the same time, each chapter represents the weather and activity of successive months of a calendar year. Inevitably, the reader's emotions and sympathies become totally engaged by Johnsey's story. When he starts working for Packie Collins, who runs a co-op, his day is stultifying: up in the morning, in to work, lunch in the nearby bakery run by the generous and caring Unthanks, back to work, "get a dog's abuse on the way home," try not to cry, home, up to bed, read a book, fall asleep thinking about dad or girls." At times he visits the slatted barn where his cows stay during the winter, and thinks about throwing a rope over the crossbeam and ending it all, but he does not, for fear of disappointing the Unthanks, the only people who are kind to him. When they go away for the summer, he is truly alone.
The turning point in the novel begins with Dermot McDermott's April visit to ask Johnsey to sell him his land, a decision Johnsey cannot bring himself to make because of its family history, but clearly his land has been a major subject of discussion in the community. When Eugene Penrose, Johnsey's nemesis, announces to his bullying companions that Johnsey's land is worth millions, the scene is set for a confrontation which threatens to leave Johnsey a broken man. Eventually, he comes to know two new people who seem to care greatly for him, and the two chapters in which these three lonely individuals come to know each other provide most of the humor in the novel, however dark it may be. Eventually, Johnsey begins to receive visits from townspeople who also want to be his friend.
Inexorably, the reader's sense of foreboding increases, and as the reader observes Johnsey becoming more and more lonely, the question arises of how much he may be responsible for his own victimization. Though the novel is told in the third person, the author brilliantly conveys Johnsey's particular point of view and his vernacular to make him become real for the reader, who would have to have a heart of stone not to respond to the problems of this self-described "gom." When the climax occurs, the parallels between the novel's "resolution" and the events in Ireland when the real estate "bubble" burst are undeniable as this character-based novel becomes an allegorical representation of a particular time and place during which the country forever loses its innocence.