A teenage boy is talking to his father in the library of their rambling Irish house. His father tells him to look at a particular picture; the moment he obeys, four armed men enter the room. But when he turns round, his father has vanished – apparently into thin air.
So, in brilliantly dramatic fashion, begins Lord Dunsany’s The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). As a novel it defies categorization, but if you imagine a John Buchan thriller with an overlay of the Celtic Twilight and Rachel Carson-style eco-prophecy you will be almost there. It is also a rhapsodic guide to the art of shooting wildfowl, which argues plausibly that those who wade through icy marshes with shotguns are lured by something more than bloodlust.
The main strand of the story takes place in 1885 with the narrator, Charles Peridore, on holiday from Eton. Since his mother is dead and he is an only child, his father’s disappearance leaves him with just the small staff of their down-at-heel estate for company; and, anxious though he is about his father’s safety, he is thrilled that he is now free to visit the nearby bog of Lisronagh in pursuit of the visiting greylag geese – ‘a greater prize to me than any that the world could offer’.
The word ‘bog’ deserves consideration. To some people it epitomizes the supposedly primitive nature of the Irish; but anyone who has actually seen a bog will know it to be an eco-system of extraordinary complexity and – on the right day – beauty. The one at Lisronagh is to Charles ‘what the desert is to an Arab’, and it plays a central part in the plot. I can’t think of a landscape more difficult to describe, but Dunsany manages to capture both the wonder and the danger of it:
I walked on, under the bog’s edge, with peaty soil underfoot, in which sometimes rushes grew, now all in flower, and sometimes, almost timidly, the grass . . . And all the way as I went over that quiet land there went beside me a
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