Nick Laird is best known for his three books of poetry, the most recent of which, Go Giants, is a collection of poems that manage to be both epic and intimate, locating grand subjects — faith, love, death — amid the particulars of everyday life. Born in Northern Ireland, Laird now lives between New York and London and is married to fellow-author Zadie Smith.
Modern Gods is Laird’s third novel and his best by some distance. In his earlier prose — Utterly Monkey (2005) and Glover’s Mistake (2009) — there was the sense of a writer seeking to find his voice and range as a novelist. There were passages that burnt brightly in the mind, but the novels as a whole felt like exercises, collections of beautiful sentences in search of a plot. In Modern Gods Laird seems to have found a way of marrying his poet’s sensitivity to the importance of the well-chosen word with a more rigorous, driving narrative voice.
The book’s story is strung between the members of the Donnelly family — Kenneth and Judith, the parents, estate agents dealing with the onset of old age; Spencer, the son, also an estate agent, burly and brainless. The majority of the novel, though, is from the perspective of the two daughters: Liz, a New York-based academic and author of a self-help book, and Alison, who’s older, and has stayed at home in Ballyglass, Northern Ireland. In his poem “Progress” Laird writes that “The problem with leaving home is home follows.” It might serve as an epigraph for this novel, which is about the way that violence seeds itself and breeds in the dark of the past, pushing up into the present with terrible insistence. The book opens with the horrifying description of a Troubles-era massacre, which brings to mind at once the Wild West and the atrocities at the Bataclan, but which we come to understand as a central event in Alison’s life.
Liz’s New York existence is one of rootless anomie softened by medication. Her love life is a mess, her dog,…