by Ruth Gilligan
It’s my stop on the “The Butchers” blog tour! Atlantic Books have provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review and a big thank you goes to Anne Cater for the invite. If you’d like to learn more about this book, check out the other blogs on the tour, see what people have to say on Goodreads and head over to the author’s Twitter page
A photograph is hung on a gallery wall for the very first time since it was taken two decades before. It shows a slaughter house in rural Ireland, a painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall, a meat hook suspended from the ceiling – and, from its sharp point, the lifeless body of a man hanging by his feet.
The story of who he is and how he got there casts back into Irish folklore, of widows cursing the land and of the men who slaughter its cattle by hand. But modern Ireland is distrustful of ancient traditions, and as the BSE crisis in England presents get-rich opportunities in Ireland, few care about The Butchers, the eight men who roam the country, slaughtering the cows of those who still have faith in the old ways. Few care, that is, except for Fionn, the husband of a dying woman who still believes; their son Davey, who has fallen in love with the youngest of the Butchers; Gra, the lonely wife of one of the eight; and her 12-year-old daughter, Una, a girl who will grow up to carry a knife like her father, and who will be the one finally to avenge the man in the photograph.
“The Butchers” is set in rural Ireland in 1996, a year when mad cow disease was threatening the livelihood of British and Irish farmers. The mid-90s was also a time where Ireland felt a struggle between traditional views and the more modern and this is a key theme in this story.
In the opening pages of this book, a man is found dead in a slaughterhouse, hanging by his feet on a meat hook. He’s one of The Butchers, a group of eight men who travel the country to slaughter cows in a traditional way.
“According to the ancient Irish custom, there had to be eight men present at every cattle slaughter; eight different hands touching the animal’s hide as it passed from this life to the next. So now eight Butchers spent eleven months of the year calling on the few families around the country who still believed, and killing their beasts in the traditional, curse-abiding way.”
All of the characters in this story are related to one of these men in some way. Gra is the wife of one of The Butchers and there’s her daughter Una , my favourite character in this story, too. Fionn is a farmer and his son Davey has big hopes when The Butchers arrive in their town.
This story carefully weaves between the perspectives of these four characters, keeping up the pace throughout. There’s also some short interludes jumping to the future, when 22 years later, a photograph of the hanging body is being displayed in a New York Gallery. I have to say that I really enjoyed these snippets in New York and I thought that they were a great addition to the story.
I did think going in that this was going to be more of a crime story, but with themes of family and community, folklore and mystery, this book is more of a coming-of-age story for the younger characters, particularly Una desperate to be and do things that tradition says she can’t. Una was my favourite of the characters and I looked forward to her chapters but I found that I struggled to connect with some of the others.
There were a few things in these pages that I didn’t to get on with, but in general this was a really enjoyable read. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a story about Ireland on the cusp of modernisation. If you’re a fan of folklore, this could be ideal for you too.
Overall rating: “The Butchers” is an interesting story set in Ireland in 1996. Full of folklore and tradition, this is a compelling coming-of-age story reflecting the changing views and beliefs at this time.
Don’t forget to check out the reviews of other blogs on the tour and if you like what you’ve read about it, support the author by picking up a copy on Kindle or Paperback through Amazon UK or your local bookshop.