I Could Read the Sky
Book Review by Carlo Gébler
Published by: Harvill Press
I Could Read the Sky is an unusual novel with text by Timothy O'Grady and photographs by Steve Pyke. At some point during the last twenty years, an unnamed narrator lies in a room in Quex Road, Kilburn, and remembers fragments of his idyllic Irish childhood, his savage, back breaking years of toil in England, first as a farm labourer in Lincolnshire and later as a builder in various towns in the southeast, his short-lived happiness, sexual and emotional, with his wife, Maggie, her death from a heart attack in the street, and his decline into feeble old age. At the end of the book he waits for death in his squalid Kilburn room, the money to pay for the cost of shipping his corpse back to Ireland in a box under his bed; after a life of gruelling labour that's all he has to show - the money to pay for his funeral - and this is a bitter comment, I presume, on how little the emigrant gets back in return for the stupendous amount that the emigrant gives to the host country.
This is not a conventional or complete fictional autobiography; we receive the story in short, beautifully written spasms of prose; these are the dots of the unnamed narrators life, and we, the reader, have to join them up. However, the task is not as difficult as it might appear at first, because to help us here are Steve Pyke's moody, black-and-white photographs of Irish rural life (of the kind that has almost vanished - Pyke's Ireland is the 'Hibernia' of thatched cottages, stone walls and radiant little girls in white holy communion frocks) and Irish urban life in England (dirty pubs, gritty men, empty city landscapes).
The photographs also have their qualities; they are beautifully composed; they linger in the memory; I was especially taken with the still life studies of peat houses, Rosary beads, and other Irish icons. Like the text, the photographs also have a 'conventional' feel; in his pictures (taken over the last sixteen years) Pyke covers ground that has been trodden before (Rachel Giese). However, work does not have to be new to be likable or to be judged of value.
There is also to be said for I Could Read the Sky the important fact that the authors here are trying to make a book that mixes prose with photographs - that's a brave undertaking and I admire it. Whether it works as a novel is a different matter. Sometimes the juxtaposition of image and text works, sometimes the pictures seem to be 'illustrations' of the text, and sometimes the pictures appear to have no connection to the text at all. But so what? Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. So perhaps, for achievement, this is a six out of ten book, but for effort, really, it would have to get ten out of ten. Recommended.