Book review: The End of Nightwork by Aidan Cottrell-Boyce

Pol has a rare condition which means his body ages in sudden bursts, rather than gradually. At thirteen he aged ten years overnight, and now he is in his thirties but looks a decade younger.

The End of Nightwork takes the form of a memoir written by Pol for his young son, Jesse. Pol describes the difficult marriage between his German father and Irish mother and his obsession with 17th-century Puritan prophet Bartholomew Playfere. After Pol discovers Playfere through a lesson at school and a Ladybird book, he learns that his parents honeymooned on the same island in Connemara where Playfere led his people to wait for Armageddon (Playfere had identified it as the location due to a misunderstanding).

Pol and his wife, Caroline, also travel there for their honeymoon before settling to married life. Pol’s medical condition (and frankly, his temperament) mean he doesn’t have a career so his work on Playfere becomes his identity, allowing him to claim status, intellect and purpose to their friends. He works as a tutor to Cynthia, a young disabled artist and activist, and she inspires his increasing fascination with a present-day movement, the Kourists, whose manifesto of intergenerational conflict is refined and discussed on Reddit.

Meanwhile, the everyday conflicts and compromises he and Caroline experience are heightened by his condition and the response of the people around them to a man who is always either older or younger than he appears. Meanwhile, Jesse begins acting out at school and Pol’s mother’s dementia and his own increasingly vivid dreams lead him to re-examine the knotty dynamics of his family.

The End of Nightwork’s apparently discursive style, moving from the mundane to the fantastical with dry humour and piercing observation, masks its clever interweaving of ideas: on how our physical bodies both define and belie who we are, the significance of age in political and social life, the power of cults to mobilise and persuade, how unreliable fragments of memory shape our identity as individuals, families and cultures.

The End of Nightwork is a novel to savour, poignant and quietly devastating. I kept turning it over in my mind after I had finished reading it, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw.

I received a copy of The End of Nightwork from the publisher via NetGalley.
View The End of Nightwork on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Instructions for the Working Day by Joanna Campbell, another novel which moves playfully beyond realism – and features a protagonist with a German father.

 

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