on 24 January 2009
I couldn't stop reading this novel: I read it in bed; on the train; on the tube; under the desk at work. The funny thing is that I'm not really sure why. It wasn't because of the suspense, or the plot exactly - I just really needed to know what was going to happen.
A deliciously fresh novel that deals with some of the oldest, toughest issues: love, loss, family, friendship and growing up. And some others along the way, like religion, getting completely wasted, ill-advised actions, small-town politics, avoidance, betrayal, and sex. You'll have to read it to have any idea of what I'm talking about.
I ordered this book without really knowing much about it. I didn't realise that it was set in Ireland (somehow the blurb makes it sound like it could be American) and I didn't really have a sense of what it would be like. Having finished it, I still don't quite know what to make of it - like the very best writing, it works its magic in a subtle way that's hard to pin down.
But it was a great read, from the Biblical quotes to the topsy-turvy home-life of John Devine, his oddly straight-talking mother Lily and John's burgeoning intense friendship (and adventures) with James Corboy. Beautifully written - even the bits about maggots and worms are curiously fascinating (our protagonist has a keen interest in creepy crawlies of this sort - sorry to give this away but this is perhaps not a book for the squeamish!)...
Fabulous but not at all precious or affected, this book delights in avoiding easy answers and just revels in the complex glories and sadnesses of growing up.
I started to read this as I sat down to my lunch; that was a mistake, the narrator John Devine is fascinated by worms and parasites and provides in the opening pages many a lurid description of the subject of his interest. John Devine lives with his mother in the house she inherited from her parents. He is something of a loner but feels hemmed in by the Irish small town attitudes. When John is in his sixteenth year the hip and articulate Jamie moves into town and makes a friend of John on the spot, instantly confiding in him. John's life is suddenly opened up by this new friendship.
But John has his problems to cope with, a bombastic domineering local spinster, Mrs Nagle, intent on moving into and taking over John's and his mother's life; a local and possibly corrupt Guard officer; and some local heavies with criminal tendencies. He has to cope also with his own inner turmoil, troubled by dreams dominated by a large black bird, an old crow; what does it mean? But his biggest worry is his chain smoking mother's failing health, and as he tries to care for her needs he gradually learns of her past, and his origins.
The story covers John's life from his very early years to his mid teens; it is eloquently told and beautifully conjures the troubles of youth. Into the fabric of the main story Murphy ingeniously interweaves other short or very short stories. John quickly engenders one's empathy, and as the story entwines and unfolds towards its mournful yet ultimately positive conclusion one's heart will ache for our young hero.
I did not much enjoy my lunch, but I did immensely enjoy John the Revelator; its humour, its re-creation of small town Ireland, its portrayal of friendship, but above all its evocation of the turmoil of youth.
Who's that a writin'?
John the Revelator.
So goes the classic Blind Willie Johnson song. In very broad terms, John the Revelator opens the book of the seven seals and unleashes the apocalypse. So it should be that our narrator, young John Devine, opens a Pandora's Box of secrets.
Living in small town Ireland, in a pretty much contemporary time, John is a loner with a fixation on parasites. He lives with his mother who is an odd mix of religious and neglectful. When a new (and older) boy comes to town, Jamey Corboy, John falls in with him and they get up to mischief. Jamey has one foot in the adult world and knows scary people. We know from the title that bad things will happen. Many of these bad, dark secrets are revealed to John in allegorical stories that Jamey has written. Hence, just like in the song, John is not the author of the dangerous text, but merely the person who reads the text and frees the secrets.
John The Revelator is essentially a story of love and trust; as John's mother fails both in maternal instinct and health, John starts to look to Jamey for protection. There is a hint of sexual frisson in the relationship but ultimately Jamey starts to take on the mantle of the mother - protecting John from harm even at personal cost.
This isn't an action packed novel; there are some deeply irritating passages about a crow that don’t work at all; and Jamey’s stories initially feel clunky until the allegory becomes clear. But it is pretty engrossing and the reader does care for John. As a result, this is quite a quick read and whilst it is not the first small-town Irish novel, it holds its own in this crowded space.
on 13 February 2015
Up until now, I'd only ever heard of ''John the Revelator'' as a song. Judging from the several mentions of the song in the story and given that author Peter Murphy works in the music press, I suspect that's where the title of this novel came from as well. How much I enjoy the song depends on which version of it I hear, but with no such concerns with the book, I was able to enjoy it fully without worrying if someone had done a better version elsewhere that I was missing out on.
John Devine is a teenager stuck in a small Irish town with a single mother, no real friends and a rather worrying fascination for bodily parasites, mostly intestinal worms. His only human contact is with his mother Lily, Mrs Nagle, an elderly neighbour and Harry Farrell, a local jack-of-all-trades. His only break from the house and from school is Sunday Mass. Not exactly the life of your average teenage boy and not the kind of life any teenage boy would want to live.
Things start to change when Jamey Corboy comes to town. For John, Jamey opens up a world he could never have imagined, introducing him to a life outside his own house. John takes up smoking and drinking and starts growing up and having a life. As he does, however, his mother becomes more and more ill and eventually Mrs Nagle has to come and look after them both. ''John the Revelator'' is the story of John Devine growing up from being a teenager to becoming a young man and all that he discovers about himself and about life in general as this happens.
''John the Revelator'' is essentially a slice of small town Irish life as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. As with most of life, it's pretty slow moving, but it's also surprisingly gripping. As a fan of thriller books, quite often a story with a slow pace can make me lose interest, but there was none of that here. I think it was the style of the story that kept me interested, as Murphy frequently switches between John's telling of the story, interspersed with some strange dreams he's having and often dropping in stories that Jamey has written to help illuminate the actions of some of the other characters.
The other aspect that kept me interested is that the story was very much just snippets of a life, rather than the detail, which does mean only the interesting parts are covered. Whilst this gives no real indication of how John Devine may cope with the boring parts of life, it does help speed things along. Whilst there is a lot going on, the period is quite long, so it never feels that Murphy is giving John Devine too much that would be unrealistic. Everything he goes through, with his mother's illness, events with Jamey and even the sometimes strange dreams John Devine has, seem perfectly plausible and very real and this is much of the appeal of the story. Every adult was once a teenager and the process of growing up is one of discovery. In John Devine, Peter Murphy has created a character who explores himself and who we can sympathise with entirely, largely because we can possibly remember a time when we were much like John Devine.
Part of the enjoyment certainly comes from Murphy's writing style. He's not a particularly visual writer, but he is a very emotional writer. So whilst you don't always get a clear idea of what the characters and locations may look like, you do get a very clear picture of what they're feeling. Given that your average teenager is a ball of hormones as they grow up, this is far more important. John Devine goes through many emotional experiences as his life changes virtually completely from one end of the story to the other and you get to feel every one of them.
I enjoyed "John the Revelator" a lot more than I'd expected to after the early pages. Once it had passed the opening where we were meeting John Devine for the first time and I'd settled into the slow pace of the story, I suddenly found myself gripped by the tale. The amount of emotion shown and the interesting changes of pace provided by Jamey's stories made for a wonderful combination and I found myself reading huge chunks of the story at a time. It didn't suck me in as completely as Donna Milner's ''After River'', but it's still an emotional and engrossing read.
This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
on 9 April 2009
An amazingingly compelling read that covers a whole range of topics, amongst them being love, loss, religion, betrayal , humour, and sadness. Set in Ireland it made a wonderful quirky read that for me was a page turner that I couldn't put down until I'd finished it. There are some slightly queezy passages about John's weird obsession with worms and maggots, but they are strangely fascinating, too. I loved this book but have a feeling it is going to be one of those 'Marmite' reads and will have a varied response from its readers.
What an extraordinary book! The tale of a boy growing up, only child of an unmarried mother in rural island; a boy with few friends, an obsession with worms and death who has visions of crows.
Ostensibly a coming of age tale with few, if any twists - the writing is what lifts it above the norm; Peter Murphy's prose is compelling and exciting and a constant surprise.
Very hard to put down and very highly recommended.
on 3 October 2009
In this story if a young boy coming of age, John Devine grows from childhood to adolescence in the Irish town of Kilcody. Born in a storm, his mother said the thunder was so loud she flinched when it struck. Treated as a typical boy, Gabriel realizes what is expected of him as his kindly mother cleans people's houses and sometimes takes in clothes to be washed or mended in order to make ends meet. A heavy smoker who likes to sit me the fire and read her Westerns, she silently becomes detached from the world around her. John in turn is confused by the mixed messages she sends, seeking solace in books including "Harper's Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts" which established John's preoccupation with worms and parasites. In the midst of a visit from by his mother's friend Mrs. Nagle a square old bird and the only one who could help him, John meets and befriends the eccentric Jamey Corboy the market square with his black jeans and army boots, floppy hair raked back from a high forehead. A blow-in from Ballo town, Jamey is a loner who sits in the school-shelter writing in a spiral notebook, but he's from a good family and lived in a nice house. Literate and ironic, Jamey enthralls Johns with his stories, passing him copies of books by Rimbaud, and Dante.
When Jamie, hell bent on celebrating the end of his exams, drags John to a disco at the Rugby club, the hyperactive rhythms pounds from the sound system, and for the first time there is something about the music and about Jamie that is dangerous to John. If he isn't careful, the music and indeed Jamey might overwhelm his senses and swallow him up. Even as his mother, the smoke around her head like some "dissipating halo," tells John to stay away from that Jamey Corboy, Dee, Jamie's mother is just thankful that Jamie has made a friend here. A drunken night on the Chapel,, And then a black out, fragments of dream and memory began to detach themselves from the murk and float to the surface horrible as jumbled bits of bodies. Unfortunately, the evidence left on Jamey's camcorder and in a fit of anxiety John betrays his friend. Not to worry though - Jamey takes it all in his stride. When he walks away from John it feels as though something inside him died, "like I was a twin whose body had absorbed that of its brother, and now he lived in me."
Meanwhile, John's mother takes to her bed. All day long and most of the night she slept, each sickly hour that passed seemed to suck the life from her body until she shrinks beneath the sheets. And Mrs. Nagle with her boxes of chocolates and sickly perfume, endlessly intuits herself into John's life. Certainly, John's rite-of-passage into adolescence is riddled with sexual experiences and a fair amount of anxiety. He does his best to handle his betrayal of Jamey, terrified that there will be some sort of recompense for his folly. John is an imaginative boy, but also impressionable flawed and he doesn't know how to fix the situation with his mother. Throughout, Murphy's tone is lightweight as John confronts life's various challenges. The fields and the whispering woods, are beautifully rendered even as John mostly feels as though he could just vanish into the will-o-the-wisp, becoming a ghost drifting through the narrow laneways. The author does a fine job of showing John's confusion, denial and eventual acceptance of his mother's fate and of his friend Jamie who continues to enthrall him with stories. When the "old crow" eventually wings towards him across the sea, casting a "vast galleon shadow" the sunshine, the light, and the remnants of the storm, her mother's face appears and her body is restored to its fullness, Gradually, John imagines a different life Of course his life as he knows it will be forever altered, but the epiphany provides a final opportunity to say goodbye. Mike Leonard October 2008.
Quirky is an overused catch all phrase nowadays. If something doesn't fit exactly within the confines of a genre then it is inevitably called quirky. So, to label this book quirky seems somewhat glib and easy, but that would be an accurate description.
John the Revelator is in many ways your standard coming of age tale; a disenfranchised young man, an outsider, a small community, a strange family, a smattering of drink and drugs. So far, so familiar. But when you add in an obsession with insects, a hint of the supernatural and biblical undertones you start to get something a little bit out of the ordinary.
John lives in a small Irish village with his heavy smoking and bible-quoting mother. He is haunted by dreams of crows and the end of the world and withdraws from the community about him.
When James Corboy arrives in town John spies a kindred spirit and is gravitated towards the newcomer. As their normal teenage behaviour spirals into something altogether more sinister, and John's dreams become increasingly vivid, his mother's health steadily fails and John is faced with a life changing choice.
John the Revelator is hugely reminiscent of the Wasp Factory in tone and style, and it is impossible to read this book without making that unfavorable comparison, but there is still plenty to enjoy about it.
In places the writing is delicious and Peter Murphy exhibits a real understanding of the alienation and confusion of the teenage years. Throughout, the text is suffused with a dark humour and a sense of unease, and it is that which elevates this book above the norm.
Although I love to read and go through a lot of books it is very rare that I come across one that gives me such a buzz that I hate to put it down, and when I do I cannot wait to start reading it again. This last happened to me for a couple of years ago (whilst reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy) but it happened again for me on reading Peter Murphy's brilliant novel, John the Revelator.
Initially I didn't hold out too much hope for it - I only decided to read it after reading a review comparing it with Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory - but from page one I was hooked; I knew straight away that I was about to read what would be for me, a special book.
I enjoyed everything about it. First & foremost I thought the storyline was excellent. On reading the Iain Banks comparison I was expecting something very black and macabre, but instead it is more of a `coming of age' story as it is a tale about an Irish schoolboy, John Devine, who leads a quiet, simple life until he forms a friendship with Jamie Corboy, a bohemian character who takes Johns life into a new direction.
As well as John & Jamie there is an `undercast' of other characters who all have their own story to tell. Even though many are larger than life, the author manages to make them all three dimensional and believable. Chief amongst these are John's mother Lily, who as a single mother, struggles to keep John on the straight and narrow, and the dreadful Mrs Nagle, who becomes a big part of John's life once his mother falls ill.
I think this book has the lot; humour and sadness, sex and religion, good people and bad people, love and loss. It is a simple story but it is also a many layered story that all comes together in the end.
Overall, John the Revelator is an extremely well written book and I will be keeping a eye out for Peter Murphy's subsequent efforts.
John the Revelator is a coming of age story reminiscent of the Wasp Factory, right down to the insect obsession but without the tight plotting and satisfactory ending. The writing is good but disjointed, and feels more like a string of short stories that are loosely collected. How else to explain the church, rubbish dump and car tryst episodes? The two central characters, John and his mother, are well drawn, but I failed to understand the motivations of Mrs Nagle and John's friend, James. Likewise the "crow" passages between chapters are heavy on symbolism but are ultimately dragged down by their sheer pretentiousness. I kept reading at a rapid pace, which is always a plus, but ultimately the book fizzles out, and ends with a whimper. Good from the library for a beach holiday, but this not a book I would recommend buying.