This whirlwind novel of the Irish-American experience traces one couple’s journey from an impoverished Irish community to a triumphant life in America.
In 1848, 16-year-old Brian O’Rourke is a poor violinist who plays songs to comfort his starving countrymen. Elizabeth Reilly is a teenage pianist from a well-to-do family who’s skeptical of bourgeois marriage. Gradually, the two become star-crossed lovers and separately leave Ireland to pursue their dreams. Elizabeth arrives in Paris and studies with Frédéric Chopin, who abruptly dies of tuberculosis, and then moves to Virginia. Brian lands in New York and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad and then the Civil War. The book’s most interesting thread is Brian’s aptitude for cryptography and telegraphy, which makes him a unique asset to the North. Brian eventually meets President Abraham Lincoln and becomes an intelligence officer. The narrator changes with every chapter, from Brian and Elizabeth to lesser characters like Elizabeth’s Aunt Bess and Solicitor Charles Reilly. Rooney (The Acheron Deception, 2014) writes in the first-person present tense, which lends urgency to the narrative. Whether he’s describing a Utah sunset or a grisly amputation, the prose is rich in detail. Unfortunately, the book is mired in exposition, and the dialogue can sometimes be encyclopedic in tone. Toward the end, for example, Brian asks his nephew David about his new car, to which he replies: “It’s from the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a thousand dollars. It has an odorless hydrocarbon engine that can reach twenty miles an hour, and suspension wire wheels that minimize passenger jostling on a bumpy road.” Other characters relate facts, such as a definition of “Black Irish,” for no apparent reason save to educate readers. The book also sometimes rushes through its more tender moments; only minutes after Elizabeth delivers a child, for example, the new parents have a casual discussion about the nature of God.
A well-researched historical epic, but its enthusiasm for trivial details impedes the natural flow of the story.