Benedict Kiely is the author of eight novels, four collections of short fiction, and a number of nonfiction books; until the publication of Nothing Happens in Carmincross, however, he was not widely known outside Ireland. He is, as Thomas Flanagan suggests in the introduction to a Kiely collection of short stories, The State of Ireland (1980), a man who is rooted in an area, the small towns and villages near Omagh in County Tyrone on the Northern Ireland border. His early fiction celebrated the links between the people and the place. As the sectarian and regional violence has increased in Ireland, however, his vision has become “more somber.” Nothing Happens in Carmincross is Kiely’s darkest work. The narrative voice records the events that are described in the newspaper, seen on television, heard on the radio, and, finally, personally witnessed; the reader must acknowledge the inhumanity in Ireland and around the globe. Kiely’s antidote to this situation is more personal than political. The young man who marries the sister of his dead fiancee is part of the only real renewal that can take place in Kiely’s shattered world.
The critical reception of the novel has been mixed. While Paul Hutchinson went so far as to call the book “a classic of Irish and world literature,” John Updike was not impressed by the narrator’s range of allusions: “It rushes ponderously about, feathered in quotations and wildly glowing, like an angel beating its wings but not quite getting off the ground.” Conor Cruise O’Brien’s judgment is more balanced and to the point; he praises Kiely’s ability to “put horror into its place; that place remains terrifying, but it’s not allowed to take over everything.” In what is perhaps the most acute comment on the book, O’Brien notes that Kiely’s novel “conveys, better than any book I can think of, a sense of the relationship of modern Catholic Ireland to its past, and the bearing of that relation on the future.”