This first book in a four-volume series highlights differences in the experiences of Irish natives fleeing their homeland in the early 20th century.
The painter Samuel Finlay, Archer’s grandfather, is one of the main characters in this debut historical novel, set during World War I. The author’s mother, Dorothy, appears as the artist’s infant daughter, Dot. Following his sweetheart Liz and hoping to forget the needless death of his younger brother Liam, Samuel migrates to Toronto and becomes an illustrator for the local newspaper. Meanwhile, Collin O’Donnell falls into a life of crime after his mother is killed and his younger sister Claire disappears. Samuel meets the thuggish Collin at the site of a warehouse fire, and sees something of Liam in him. The artist decides to make saving Collin his project. Meanwhile, Claire becomes a slave factory worker before she escapes and then trains as a nurse. She is heading to Europe aboard the Lusitania when a German torpedo sinks the cruise ship in the Irish Sea. She’s rescued by, and falls in love with, Irish revolutionary playwright Tadgh McCarthy, but she has amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is. So everyone is searching for something: Samuel for redemption, Collin for his sister, Tadgh for revenge on the Brits who killed his parents, and Claire for her past. The tale also grapples with what those quests may end up costing the four players. Archer has created colorful, sympathetic characters, all striving for better lives. He packs this dense volume with pungent details, giving the reader necessary context, and even provides eight pages of history at the volume’s end. Despite the abundance of information about the era, the narrative flows smoothly. In this first installment of the series, Archer only hints at the shared history between the O’Donnell and McCarthy clans and the relics that connect them. Frustratingly, he leaves the characters adrift at the book’s end (literally, in two cases), with the reader wanting more. But throughout, the author takes what could have been dry genealogical research and skillfully converts it into a layered historical drama.
An engrossing beginning of what promises to be an involving generational saga about Irish immigrants.