Thursday, December 28, 2006

From fear of Priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies

One of the more underutilized historical settings for a novel is the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s. Given that it killed up to a million people and started the Irish diaspora, you would think there would be more written about it. Joseph O'Connor sets his novel Star of the Sea in the midst of the event. The Star of the Sea is a ship sailing from Ireland to New York carrying a few well off passengers, including a downwardly mobile aristocrat fleeing the collapse of his family fortune in Ireland. The bulk of the passengers are refugees fleeing the famine.

As it happens, one of the refugees has been sent to kill the aristocrat, Lord Kingscourt. The book alternates between the life on the passage and the stories of Kingscourt, the family maid and the would-be assassin. None of their stories is happy and all are bound up in the twisted Anglo-Irish relationship in the 19th century. As you can imagine, none end terribly well either.

The book's structure allows for narrative flexibility. You learn from the first page that it is the work of one of the characters in the novel, some years after the events. So he can add log pages, which detail the numerous deaths by starvation and disease along the way. It also has police reports and interviews with bystanders. There are a few cases where it is not apparent that the character could have learned what he did, so it is unclear if it is invented or if he is supposed to have spent years researching it. At the end of the book, we see why he is so dedicated, which supports the idea that he researched it.

This is a big bleak story, appropriate to the era. If you like tragic tales this one is for you.

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