The Gospel of Orla: A Novel

Image of The Gospel of Orla
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Seven Stories Press
Reviewed by: 

“a compelling, unique read.”

From the first paragraph, this debut novel grabs the reader with its voice as well as its dramatic plot setup:

“I am sad to go but it is time now and there is no point in hanging around any longer. I leave my phone under the pillow. I don’t leave a note because that is just for suicides. . . . Last time they got me at the station but at least I hadn’t bought a ticket so they don’t know where I was going so they won’t know where I am headed now.”

The narrator-runaway is 14-year-old Orla McDevitt, whose life in the north of England, never very stable to begin with, was upended when her mother died of cancer two months earlier. Living on welfare with her alcoholic father and two-year-old sister Lily, Orla spends her days surfing her phone during classes, shoplifting, and avoiding nearly all offers of help or friendship. The only humans she seems to care about are Lily and her schoolmate Jamie, whose mother has ordered him to avoid all contact with her.

Orla’s escape plan is to bike southward along a route to Liverpool that she found in a tour book, then take the ferry to her aunt’s house in Ireland. She has fixated on Ireland because that’s the one place where she felt loved and happy, surrounded by family—ironically, at her mother’s funeral.

On her next attempt to run away from home, Orla is accosted by a filthy, bearded man wrapped in a blanket who claims to be Jesus. When she tracks him down the following evening, this is what she sees:

“He kneels down and picks up a dead duck. He bites his arm and raises the duck to his face. . . . He puts the duck’s beak in his mouth and the duck shakes in his hands. Like mad flapping its wings. The dead duck. Then the duck honks and shakes more.”

And Orla wonders: If this tramp can bring a duck back to life—if he really is Jesus—can he also resurrect her mother?

Suddenly, this book has shifted from Trainspotting to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

What grounds The Gospel of Orla in the world of real-realism, not magical realism, is Orla’s wonderfully vivid voice. Author Eoghan Walls is an award-winning Irish poet, and Orla’s stream-of-consciousness sings with a carefully crafted combination of music and the genuine workings of a teenager’s mind:

“But they know me at Lancaster but they don’t know me in Morecambe and it is only what a ten-mile walk which I reckon I could do in one night all I would need is more cash but actually less provisions so it balances out.”

As well, Orla is fearlessly honest in describing what she encounters, calling on all five senses – sometimes, perhaps, beyond what a reader wants to stomach.

If Orla sometimes stumbles into the cliché of an alienated, working-class youth, her voice and the mystery of her experience make this novel a compelling, unique read.