Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, Harcourt Books, 2004
What we have in this novel is a traditional story as one would get by reading the works of Sir Walter Scott or of the great Charles Dickens. Indeed, this last great novelist actually appears in Star of the Sea. In it, Dickens is portrayed in a small cameo where the antihero Pius Mulvey gives Charles the character of Fagan for Oliver Twist - a clever little cameo indeed.
This novel is set in Black 47 or more precisely in the bitter winter of 1847 and is written in the hand of one contemporary American journalist, G. Grantley Dixon of the New York Times. The book is well written because Joe O’ Connor captures brilliantly the stylistic writing of the time, whether in novels or in the newspapers. If you have read Dickens or Scott or any of the other novelists of that period and previous, you won’t be disappointed as O’Connor has managed to convince this reader at least that the words and phraseology of the mid-nineteenth century are accurate and precise.
Also this novel, like many of those by Charles Dickens, could be serialised in a weekly or monthly magazine because each chapter tells a story that can be read entirely on its own merits, but also contains mysteries which one expects to be revealed in further instalments later. Again, O’Connor shows by this choice of style to understand the literature of the period.
This novel is researched very finely and accurately indeed: the author has read widely the history of the famine and we are convinced that his characters are starving and suffering greatly. He captures both the trials and tribulations of the very poor and, indeed, those of the nobility who are now beginning to be bankrupted. Added to that ,he has mastered the contemporary vocabulary of the marine world from the mid-nineteenth century. Then, his research into prisons and the life of prisoners in 19th century London is also superb. Everything he describes rings true and authentic.
He manages well also to capture the speech patterns of the rural Irish as well as those from rural Wales, Scotland, and, of course, cockney London. All in all, a great feat for a young writer to achieve. In all of the above, I should imagine the fact that he has an M.A. in English Literature from University College Dublin aided him greatly in this convincing scholarship.
Anyway, now to the storyline. It is the bitter winter of 1847 - the blackest year of the Irish potato Famine. A ship called The Star of the Sea sets out from Cobh in County Cork Ireland for the United States of America or as the Irish traditionally called it The New World: An Domhan Nua. Incidentally, O’Connor sets the origins of his main characters in Carna in Connemara, the heart of Gaelic Ireland at the time and even today. Indeed, it is worth pointing out, that while our author is no expert on the Gaelic language, that he has checked out any translations or transliterations with experts in the language from the various universities. He is much to be praised for this sense of accuracy leading to authenticity. Other less pernickety authors would not go to such trouble.
On board The Star of the Sea are hundreds of refugees from the famine-stricken land of Ireland. Among them is a maid with a devastating secret, and a Land Lord, newly bankrupted, with an equally devastating one. Needless to say, I won’t reveal that secret, in case there are any readers of these thoughts who might wish to read the novel. Lord Merridith, the gentleman in question, is travelling with his wife and children. Then, there is an evil, dark and sinister killer who stalks the decks in search of his prey - waiting for the opportune time to kill him.
What we have in this novel is what The Wall Street Journal calls “a hard-to-put-down thriller.” However, while this may draw many readers to purchase this novel, it is not the whole of it. It is also a passionate reading of the saddest event to overcome any land at any time in history, whether past, present or to come, namely that of famine - of millions starving to death and dying in the fields, lanes and country roads. Yes, one can read it as a thriller where “terror stalks the high seas.” However, below the surface we encounter the psyche of a nation which has never forgotten the famine - be it only an unconscious memory at this stage. The present writer of these notes knew one friend, who died recently aged 86 years, who recounted to him that when he was a boy his grandfather took him by the hand to a high point on their farm of land and pointed down to Skibbereen and said: “Remember, boy, that many ships sailed out of that harbour, laden with grain, while people starved to death in the fields.” In short, the memory of the famine, unconscious now for the most part, lives on in the Irish people.
This novel runs the whole gamut of emotions from hatred, jealousy, greed to lust and love. Add in murder, a touch of incest, sadism, torture, drug addiction and prostitution and you have a taste of this “thumping good read” as Gay Byrne used to say in his radio days.
Luckily, the love scenes are drawn realistically and not too melodramatically. They are, in short, believable.
In sum, I felt that this novel is an excellent read with characters drawn who are quite believable. Indeed, we can willingly suspend our disbelief for all of them, given O’Connor’s skill as an author.
The quotations on the frontispiece are well balanced - two from Irish patriots - John Mitchell and James Connolly - and two from British sources - Punch magazine and Charles Trevelyn, Assistant Secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury, 1848.
Finally, to keep with the theme of balance, O’Connor manages to capture human nature in all aspects from its highs to its lows, in all its darkness and all its light. A brilliant read!