The Butchers' Blessing, Ruth Gilligan: A Five-Star Review
Sometimes a cover catches your attention and you need to read that book. That was The Butchers' Blessing for me; the title and cover are stunning, and the blurb was intriguing. I couldn't wait to read this one.
Set in both 1996 and 2018 Ireland, The Butcher's Blessing is told in alternating points of view spanning the last run of The Butchers, a group of men who adhere to the "old ways" of butchering, traveling the country for close to a year, performing their services based on rituals and customs passed down from one generation to the next. Una wants nothing more than to be a Butcher. Gra, her mother, struggles with her place as a Butcher's wife and questions whether this is all life has to offer to her. Fionn takes up prohibited practices in order to care for his sick wife and son. Davey. is in his last year of studies and questions what comes next. And mixed in, we meet Ronan, a photographer interested in The Butchers and making a name for himself in the photography world. I loved everything about this book. Ireland will always have a special place in my heart, and I couldn't get enough of the intricacies of everyday life in the 90s--the politics, the school etiquette, family dynamics, farm life vs "big city living." Gilligan did a wonderful job painting the conflicts between Northern and the Republic, and it served as a wonderful backdrop to the concentration on The Butchers. There's a lot going on here but it's never overwhelming. Each character is given history and internal problems that on the surface, shouldn't relate to one another but end up being woven together in a beautifully-intricate coming-of-age tale. Una is perhaps the stand-out character for me. On the brink of becoming a woman, Una is acutely aware of peers' perception of her, society's perception of her, and her family's perception of her. She wants to be a Butcher, but the harsh reality of the situation, that no Butcher has ever been a woman, makes her fiercely frustrated, disappointed, and motivated to change course. Indeed, her identity is wrapped up in her goals rather than gender constructs, a radical ideation in a country steadfast in tradition, and in these moments, she's able to explore what it means to be a woman, a wife, a girl, and an aging man stoic in the old ways--given power out of habit rather than fulfilling a full potential. This parallels well with Davey's plot, exploring his sexuality in an openly homophobic community, and in these two characters rests the future. So while this is a coming-of-age tale, it's also one of transition: respecting the past but embracing the future. Not choosing one or the other, but creating something new. In this respect, too, I appreciated the discussion of oral tradition. I've always been fascinated by tales that started as word of mouth and transitioned into written word, and Gilligan's focus on storytelling, mythology, and photography worked really well as a metaphor for this fluidity of language and history. Overall, The Butchers' Blessing is an engrossing, lyrical, thrilling read with raw honesty and insightful commentary on change. This is one I'll definitely be re-reading, and in my humble opinion, a 2020 must-read. Big thanks to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.