New Irish Fiction

Two Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

A THOUSAND MOONS. By Sebastian Barry. Faber & Faber. 2020. 251pp

ISBN: 978-0-571-33338-7

RRP: $32.99

If there existed an official list naming the top five Irish writers of today, it is safe to say that the name of Sebastian Barry would be in that list. Although he is best known as a playwright, his first work was in poetry and he has half a dozen novels to his name also, a number of these having as central character a member of the McNulty family. It is no surprise to learn that the McNulty name features here also.

A Thousand Moons takes up where his previous book, Days Without End*, left off. The two main characters in that book, Irish famine refugee Thomas McNulty and his partner John Cole, have left the US army and are helping as farm hands for John Magan – it is worth mentioning that though nothing is spelled out, the word ‘partner’ is used with its twenty-first century connotation. The two men had adopted a native child, miraculously spared from the massacres of the First Nation peoples by the American armies before those well-trained militias turned on each other in their Civil War. That war is now over, the coloured inhabitants of Tennessee are US citizens with rights, even if those are not easily or routinely enforced.But any ‘Indians’ in the area have none of those privileges.

It wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian, not at all. Some straggly farmhand might look at you and see the dark skin and the black hair and think that gave him a right to knock you down and kick you. No one saying boo to him for that. No sheriff or deputy neither.

The speaker is Winona Cole, the young girl adopted by Cole and McNulty, and hers is the voice throughout this wonderful book. Her protection, if it could be called such, was that she had been taught to speak and write English and was hired to run the office of the local lawyer, a role in which her skill with numbers was particularly important.

But one evening, she is indeed attacked, badly beaten and raped. The word rape is not used by any of the adults, by the victim or by the likely perpetrator, not even by the lawyer who is her employer. One of the charms of the book is how the reader is told what has happened and its effects, in words and phrases that could be used in the most polite society. Even Winona seems unable to explain to herself why she feels so damaged by what has happened to her.

Her only female support is Rosalee, ‘a black-skinned saint of a woman, let me tell you’, until she meets another native girl of her own age, named Peg. She is from a different tribe, but they fall in love – again that is not spelled out. ‘If you could make honey hover in the air it would be Peg. If you could take a sliver of the wildest river and make it a person it would be Peg. If you could touch your lips against a pulsing star it would be Peg.’ Rarely has love been as well described as here, the love of individuals for each other and the care that the men exhibit for the young women.

The story has much badness in it too, much of whatever is, in fact, the antithesis of love and caring, and in theses case our sensitivities are not spared. I could say how the story ends, but even to hint it obliquely would be to spoil what is an unforgettable story, beautifully written. Expect A Thousand Moons to be named one of the books of 2020.

A CONSPIRACY OF LIES. By Frank Connolly. Mercier Press. 2020. 346 pp.

ISBN: 978 1 78117 662 7

RRP: $21.42

In May 1974, a gang of Ulster thugs brought their murder to Dublin. I was in Green’s bookshop off Merrion Square shortly before bombs caused mayhem in one of their chosen sites, on nearby South Leinster Street. Those events provide an uncomfortable starting point for this story.

The book suggests, and not for the first time, that those involved in the atrocity did not all come from Belfast or Portadown, but that some were professionals in the employ of Great Britain. However, this book is fiction and the journalist author has done an excellent job of portraying the effect that the killings and maimings had on innocent Dublin citizens.

It may help in understanding the story to have an idea of the political situation in Ireland at the time. There was a coalition government, with a strong law-and-order message. One of the central characters in the story is Robert Clarke of the opposition Fianna Fail party, a man who seems to bear more than a little resemblance in his personal life and political posturings to Charlie Haughey. Subsequent chapters move the story from the bombs of 1974 to the general election of 1977 when Jack Lynch, with a promise to remove all property rates, bought – literally – a landslide victory.

On one level, the book is a love story involving Angie Whelan, who has just completed her Leaving Cert, and Joe Heney, a university dropout. Angie’s mother was caught in the blast that rocked Talbot Street; she was blinded in one eye and took years to recover sight in the other one. Joe had just earned early release from Mountjoy and was one of those who tried to help the injured in South Leinster Street.

The author intermingles the blossoming romance between the young couple with the political shenanigans of the time, and in particular the devious behaviour of Robert Clarke and his equally dodgy public relations advisor Myles Fenton. Though there are places where readers may be confused – references to the ruling Fine Gael party as the Blueshirts, for example, or to a man named the Cruiser or a group of Gardaí known as the Heavy Gang – the story is easy to follow and raises a number of issues which have still not been resolved about that day in 1974.

Indeed, as the story progresses, that aspect takes priority over the romance of the two young people. They set out to try to publicise information they have about the possible involvement of the British secret service in the bombing. The way that such attempts are sometimes handled by statutes that call on national security is evocative and the court case around Australia’s dealings with Timor Leste comes to mind.

There are places where A Conspiracy of Lies seems headed for the ‘chick lit’ bookshelf, but the author cleverly brings it around to a more substantial and more important story that deals with appalling incidents which seem to have almost disappeared from literary and political consciousness in Ireland.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.