The World of Books

The World of Books
Ireland’s troubles in fact and fiction

It is inevitable that the flood of books about 1916 should include some novels. But the precedents for such fictions are not good, as I know from reading many of them while writing my account of the literary revival and the Irish revolution, The Heart Grown Brutal (1977). There have been many, mostly third rate, with only a few rising to the second rate.

Even Liam O’Flaherty, at his best a writer of great delicacy and insight, at his worst brutal and lifeless. His novel Insurrection (1950) in no way compares with his masterly Famine (1937) or The Informer (1926).

Now, however, due in our shops shortly is Marita Conlon-McKenna’s latest book, Rebel Sisters (Transworld / Penguin, €17.99), which is aimed at the teen and young adult audience. It has been praised by the Irish Independent.

“Conlon-McKenna’s marvellous book could not be timelier. As painful as the story of these three sisters is, it is told with a light and deft hand. Her attention to historical detail is meticulous; her prose is easy and fluid. To tell a tale where the ending is already known and yet hold the reader spellbound throughout is an admirable trait in a writer, and Conlon-McKenna has accomplished this tricky manoeuvre beautifully. It’s simply a gripping read.”

I quote this independent assessment for a good reason, not to dismiss the novel’s prize winning author, who has given much pleasure to many already with her earlier books. Can there be a young person who has not already read her novel of the Famine Under the Hawthorn Tree (1990), a match to Liam O’Flaherty’s adult novel? But I want to enter a caveat.

Now the Gifford sisters were leading characters in the revolutionary movement. Their biography has been written recently by Anne Clarke in Unlikely Rebels (Mercier Press, €16.99). This book was based on family papers and interviews, and was a history book, albeit written in a popular and accessible style.

A mature novelist would pause before picking an actually historical person as the leading character of a novel. It usually does not work. A novelist anxious to explore the emotional nuances and entanglements of history would use a lesser or invented person. Thus Falstaff is a more vital and real character than is the Prince. Falstaff is the tragic figure, the Prince merely a schemer.

Inevitably Marita Conlon-McKenna in writing what is in effect a genre novel has to draw on history, but to impart sensations, aspirations and feeling to real people through fiction is a device that is tricky, as we see so often in TV docudramas.

However is might well be that the actual audience which Conlon McKenna is aiming at would be the last people to actually pick up and read an historical account of documented biography. Drama and sensation seems to be stock feature of much of the fiction written for what our friends the publicist and books shop buyers call the “Teen and YA market”.

Sordid truth

Our trouble over the last century is that there has been too much fiction written about the Troubles, much of it in the form of memoirs of those who took part. Historians since 1966 have laboured long and hard to find out what happened, to uncover the often sordid truth about what happens in a revolution, but which people prefer to hear about. Were the Russians or the Chinese ever told the truth about their revolutions? When the French came to mark the bicentaire of their revolution they found it was not quite as the legend of “liberty, equality and fraternity” had suggested. In the Vendée it was not artistocrats who died at the hands of the revolution, but multitudes of ordinary Catholic peasants of la France profonde, that deep heart of the real. What happened there has been called Europe’s first modern genocide.

Let us hope that the young adult readers of Marita Conlon-McKenna will also get to read, not only Anne Clarke’s more sober, but engaged book, but also some of the other new histories that question the past in a more rigorous way.