Spring 1927. The birth of popular music. John Coughlin is a song-catcher from New York who has been sent to Appalachia to source and record the local hill-country musicians. His assignment leads him to small-town Tennessee where he oversees the recording session that will establish his reputation. From here he ventures further south in search of glory. He is chasing what song-catchers call the big fish or the firefly; the song or performer which will make a man rich.
Waylaid at an old plantation house, Coughlin gets wind of a black teenage guitarist, Moss Evans, who runs bootleg liquor in the Mississippi Delta. The Mississippi has flooded, putting the country underwater, but Coughlin is able to locate the boy and bring him out. Coughlin views himself as a saviour. Others regard him as a thief and exploiter. Coughlin and Moss – the catcher and his catch – pick their way across a ruined, unstable Old South and then turn north through the mountains, heading for New York.
‘A fairytale wrapped within a historical novel, it’s as quixotic and dreamlike as Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.’ —Alex Preston, author of In Love and War
‘This will be familiar to fans of Decline And Fall. But what Evelyn Waugh treated satirically isn’t so funny any more, and this well-written novel is more tender and sad than bitingly hilarious.’ —Fanny Blake, Daily Mail
‘With its finely judged atmosphere of tainted innocence, Brooks’s novel frames the real horrors of post-conflict trauma as episodes of near-fairytale jeopardy: the grown-up terrors in the dark wood and the poisonous intoxications of the great house are trials in which his heroine’s strength of character is forged. As in fairy stories, the happy-ever-after consists of the simplest of fulfilled desires: a home, work, a family: love as ordinary and essential as bread.’ —Jane Shilling, Evening Standard
‘Set after the first world war, is a macabre and unsettling tale of a young girl who is made a plaything of the “funny men”, a group of damaged soldiers, so badly injured they have removed themselves from the world completely. The novel has a woozy, tainted fairytale quality – Brooks calls these molten men of his the Tin Man and the Scarecrow – and a heightened aspect, like looking at the world through a cracked magnifying glass. It’s a bizarre, horror-flecked novel, pleasingly distinctive in its oddness.’ —Natasha Tripney, Observer
‘A stunning, beautifully written debut by Xan Brooks … A masterful first novel.’ —Sophie Raworth, Read by Raworth
‘Brooks writes stunningly and paints a dark, imaginative picture so vivid I could see it made into a film.’ —Caz Roberts, Grazia
‘The year is 1923 and the trauma of the First World War has left Britain misshapen. Part of society hopes for social change, while others, ossified, look backward. This dark, magical tale explores the chasm between the two, and how a nation ravaged by “the storms of the things they once did, the people they once were” seeks redemption.’ —Philly Malicka, The Telegraph