by Ruth Gilligan
Adult Fiction, winner of the 2021 RSL Ondaatje Prize
The cover haunted me. The premise intrigued me. I had to read The Butcher’s Blessing.
Long ago, a farmer’s wife lost her husband and all seven sons in an ancient war. In her devastation, she placed a curse on the land- henceforth, no man could slaughter cattle alone. Instead, seven others had to be at his side. If these rules were not followed, or if the widow’s grief was forgotten, the whole of Ireland would become diseased.
Fast forward to 1996. Mad Cow Disease runs rampant through Great Britain, though it has yet to cross the border to Ireland. There remain a few believers of the ancient custom in Ireland, and a band of eight butchers still cross Ireland, slaughtering cattle for anyone who still follows the old ways. In the face of modern technology and a strange looming disease, how much longer can these old rituals last?
Rather than follow the butchers themselves, we follow the lives of four people in their orbit. For example, we spend a lot of time with Una, the daughter of a butcher who is fascinated with their mysteries and wishes to become one when she grows up (an unlikely prospect, as the butchers have always been men).
Part coming-of-age, part mid-life crisis, and part thriller, I heartily recommend this book. It has stuck with me for a long time after reading it. Anyone intrigued by the clash of old customs and new ideas or about the cost of a life strange from the culture around you will find a lot to think about.
Review by Anthony, Library Division Manager