There is an uncertainty that one can pick up in a writer’s first novel, a lack of assurance in some key elements of a novel whether it be plot, structure, changes in point-of-view, and narrative pace. The first-time novelist usually can handle a few of these, but rarely all. With “Welcome to Holyhell” (All Due Respect), in internet-speak, Math Bird nailed it. Bird’s first novel shows a maturity in the writing that most rookie novelists don’t have, let alone those that have written several books.
“Welcome to Holyhell” opens with Bowen traveling in Wales. It’s evident quite quickly that Bowen is a criminal and a tough guy returning home while on the run. In his hands at all times is a briefcase that turns out to all the money that Bowen and his partner, Nash, have earned in various nefarious and criminal ways.
What makes “Welcome to Holyhell” work well is the character of Jay, a put-upon middle-schooler trying to survive his mother’s bad choices of men, teenage bullies, and the heat of the 1976 summer in Wales. Incorporating a kid into a crime novel in a genuine way is fraught with difficulties. But like Polly in Jordan Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun”, Math Bird’s Jay is full of anxiety and teenage dreams as he tries to make his way through the obstacles that adults place in front of him. Fair warning, there is one bullying scene in particular that utterly brutal and shows the searing callousness of teenagers.
Unlike Bird’s “Histories of the Dead and Other Stories”, the setting of Wales didn’t play as big a factor in “Welcome to Holyhell” as it did in his short story collection. But that’s a quibble as the remoteness of Hollywell, the correct name of the town, is part of the Welsh charm and boredom.
The book’s description says that it “is a coming-of-age story about loneliness, hope, the past that haunts us, and the fear of growing older.” There is that, but there are crimes and the criminals that deeply embroider the story. One of the elements that Bird handles well is the change in character POV from Jay to Nash and we even get a peek behind the curtain on some of the supporting characters like Mich, Shane, and the others as they all race for the money.
“Welcome to Holyhell” is unlike any other crime fiction book you’ve read this year. My comparison to Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun” is not happenstance or unfounded, it is that good. Math Bird’s “Welcome to Holyhell” is a remarkable work that will have you dreading as well as eagerly turning the page.