'Modern Gods' is an agile domestic drama, split between Ireland and Papua New Guinea

In Nick Laird's third novel, the everyday drama of a Northern Ireland family is overshadowed by a past that can't quite be left behind.

Modern Gods By Nick Laird Viking 320 pp.

“Tender” is not the first word you think of when you think of either Northern Ireland or Papua New Guinea, each place green in its own way but also harsh in its own way. Yet Nick Laird’s new novel, set in both places, is above all tender. Which, in this case, does not mean sappy. The violent prologue to Modern Gods makes that clear. “A surge of bodies away from the door now, pushing across the lounge bar and much screaming.... There was a loud dull pop-pop-pop-pop, and a little puff of redness erupted from the side of the head of an old man.” Two masked gunmen kill five people (“four Catholics, a Protestant”) in a Northern Ireland roadhouse in 1993, in the past that Laird goes on to show is never past.

Decades later, in quiet Ballyglass (“bacon factory, cheese factory, cement factory”), life putters along. The Donnelly family is getting ready for a wedding: Alison, schoolteacher and mother, is marrying again; Liz, the intellectual, is flying in from London; Judith and Kenneth, the parents, are keeping Judith’s returned cancer a secret. This could be the setup for a Maeve Binchy or Anita Shreve novel, and it is no insult to Laird to say that he moves things along as expertly as any bestselling novelist would. In a few exquisite vignettes, he introduces his characters and conveys the essence of love or pain, often with a simple gesture. “Something in her voice,” he writes of Judith fretting over flowers, “some new alarm, some warning – made him turn to her. He softened as he always did at the sight of sadness and stood up in his new, tentative way, and went to her. She was sobbing now and fell into him, and held him while he repeated – although he knew the answer – ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, whatever’s wrong now?’ ”

While Liz still smarts from her latest boyfriend’s infidelity, Alison, about to marry bland Stephen, persuades herself that “there was something attractive about a mind that moved in a straight line.” Never mind Stephen’s sectarian tattoos and his violent nightmares. Adding to the unease are glimpses of the long-dead shooting victims, captured in a few brief descriptions of their last day, their final minutes. In one flashback, for example, a man at the bar commiserates with another, recently widowed:

“ 'Now it’s a shame.'
'It is.'
'You haven’t had to seek your troubles.'
'We all have our crosses to bear.'
In silence they looked down at their drinks and considered their crosses, then looked up at the band going full throttle."

The pub door bangs open and death enters.

Then it’s back to the present, to Alison’s wedding preparations and a perfectly timed revelation that spawns fresh anguish. As her sister’s honeymoon turns into a hostile standoff, Liz travels to the jungle outpost of New Ulster in Papua New Guinea to narrate a BBC documentary on a new religious cult founded by a woman called Belef. This sounds contrived – and it is a little. Only toward the end, however, does Laird belabor the themes of tribalism and religious fanaticism that connect two places, worlds apart. “Liz lay there now in the dark and thought she had spend her lifetime studying the differences, how one tribe does this, another that – and all the time there was no difference, not really, just tiny variations on a theme of great suffering, great loss.”

Belef, a wonderfully odd creation, is disfigured by grief just as the widower who confronts his wife’s killer in Ballyglass is undone. Yet the suffering prophet remains weirdly clear-sighted. In her view, the lure of American evangelicalism, for example, is no mystery: “Before the mission came, there were many families here,” Belef explains of her village. “They grew scared of the darkness and moved to Slinga. They were all afraid of Hell, this new place they heard of. And all the villagers who went got shoes given ’em. All the others were getting on and they were not.”

In a domestic drama – and "Modern Gods" is at heart just that – shuttling back and forth between Ballyglass and Papua New Guinea is a risky maneuver. But Laird is an agile writer who effortlessly switches location and point of view without sacrificing the empathy we feel for each character. Even on alien terrain where “in the all-day permanent gloaming, beasts crawled on their stomachs, crept on all fours, stalked and pounced, rutted and died and rotted,” the mood remains intimate and often lyrical.

But Laird is at his best on his home turf. A poet as well as a novelist, he has a well-tuned ear for the speech of his native place and a keen eye for Northern Ireland’s shifting light and brooding sky. Here’s Kenneth, for example, surveying a morning: “The sky hanging over the black hills was heavy with rain about to get falling. Sidney, his older brother, would be heading up to the cattle in an hour or so.”   And here is Judith, awakened by terror, contemplating her attenuated life: “She’d wanted a nice home with nice things. On the farm there was never enough of anything. Except for work. There was enough of that.... She wanted to sift her life through her fingers, to weigh the thing and not to find it wanting. To find that everything was worth it in the end.” Laird wisely leaves that question open.

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