In his debut historical novel, Collins delivers a colorful but disjointed fictional portrait of an Irish community at the onset of the 19th-century Great Famine.
This novel, the first in a forthcoming series, centers on Irish country folk Margaret and Flynn O’Connell and their two children but also features a Dickensian cast of do-gooders and villains in the nearby town of Killarney. Collins tantalizingly scatters seeds of intrigue among many plotlines—Margaret O’Connell hides the fact that she had another lover before her husband; Flynn once served as a French Foreign Legionnaire but never told Margaret; a well-known revolutionary mysteriously comes to the aid of a grieving widow; a beautiful gypsy girl seduces a talented footballer and ensnares him with a pregnancy—but he brings relatively few of them to fruition. The intriguing characters bring scenes to life, but their stories never quite take off. The novel also often relies on passive language; for example, when a fisherman splashes water on Margaret’s face after she faints, “[t]he clothing of both drip from the sudden storm furnished by the man acquainted with the powers of water.” Sometimes such language suggests an Irish cadence; at other times, it frustratingly obscures the action. Even when the novel focuses on the famine’s devastation, capturing it from diverse points of view, its chapters read more like discrete character studies than complementary storylines. The novel ramps up the narrative tension in its last quarter, when a Halloween kidnapping unites the townspeople and sheds light on their interpersonal ties. The author also effectively draws on his personal knowledge of Irish history, folklore, customs and language to re-create the novel’s place and time; the most sure-footed passages illuminate the way a Gaelic greeting solidifies a new friendship, for example, or how peasant dwellings were leveled by unfeeling landlords.
A novel with compelling subject matter that sometimes struggles to maintain its momentum.