Generations of an Irish family cope with decades of personal and political turmoil in Walsh’s endearing debut novel.
In the midst of a devastating potato blight in the 1840s, the roots of the Callaghan family take hold when John is born in an impoverished Irish town. He is soon orphaned and a childless couple takes pity on the boy, granting him the opportunity—i.e., food—to grow up, take over the adopted-family business and get married. And so John does, as do his children and his children’s children. Only halfway through the novel does Walsh finally slow the rapid, increasingly tedious rhythm of small-town lovers courting and requiting, and shift to a more patient and revealing narrative centered on the Frowney family and their farm. Louise Callaghan, granddaughter of John, is the Frowney’s saintly matriarch and Charlie Frowney, detached alcoholic, is its stern patriarch. The couple’s nuanced relationship, from its spirited beginning to its disenchanted conclusion, emanates a spark lit by a passion that eludes the many other relationships in the novel. Some potentially engaging arcs are weakened by clichés—marriage is described as a “tug-of-war,” an annoyance is “a thorn in her side”—and baffling similes, as when “tears flowed like molten lava.” Yet Walsh, a poet, has a keen eye for detail, most admirably in poignant moments a less insightful author might deem unremarkable, as when Louise overhears Charlie and their young son quietly singing together in the barn at sunrise. At low volume throughout, Walsh politely, perfunctorily mentions Ireland’s political revolution as if those violent contentions were only an expression of whiskey preference. For spanning two centuries, the novel’s breadth does not translate into depth, but when focused, Walsh can delight.
A breezy read from a capable talent.