March 10, 2015

An Irish book featuring a barrel

When I was a small child, my father used to spin me yarns about an Irishman called O'Shaughnessy who got into a lot of adventurous scrapes that always ended up with him falling off a roof or wall or tree straight into a whiskey barrel and getting soused. Although probably not suitable PC fare for youngsters today, my six-year-old self thought they were hilarious. Considering that my father didn't have one jot of Irishness in his genes that I know of, this is pretty odd, but for anyone who reads this novel through to the end, will see why I was reminded of these old tales.

Some books are built around sophisticated allusions. One has to have prior knowledge of the background to appreciate the work. If I had read The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn a year ago I would have had a quite different reaction from today. In fact, I may well not have finished it at all because much of it would have been lost on me. Fortunately, recent encounters with a couple of enthusiastic Irish history raconteurs have resulted in bringing me up to speed on the doings of Walter Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne MacBride, Georgie Hyde-Lees and Constance Gore-Booth.

So - don't even bother beginning this novel without knowing who these people are and having some awareness of their convoluted romantic and political entanglements. It also helps to know about Yeats' obsession with spiritualism and a brush-up on the Order of the Golden Dawn would be useful.

Otherwise, the outline blurb on the Amazon page gives a basic summary of what to expect.
London at the dawn of 1918 and Ireland's most famous literary figure, W.B. Yeats, is immersed in supernatural investigations at his Bloomsbury rooms. Haunted by the restless spirit of an Irish girl whose body is mysteriously washed ashore in a coffin, Yeats undertakes a perilous journey back to Ireland with his apprentice ghost-catcher Charles Adams to piece together the killer's identity. Surrounded by spies, occultists, and diehard female rebels, the two are led on a gripping journey along Ireland's wild Atlantic coast, through the ruins of its abandoned estates, and into its darkest, most haunted corners. Falling under the spell of dark forces, Yeats and his ghost-catcher come dangerously close to crossing the invisible line that divides the living from the dead.
The opening of the story with the girl in the coffin washing up on the beach is a cracker, and I continued to enjoy the unpredictability and quirkiness of the tale, never quite sure whether it was going to turn into a real ghost story or a straightforward whodunnit surrounded by a lot of spookiness.

The Irish mist does lift long enough to provide a final resolution involving a barrel (to my utter delight). There are sexy passages to do with Georgie's desire for a child that don't seem to quite fit with everything else that is going on. There are switches in viewpoint that didn't bother me unduly, but that other readers could find annoying.

Overall, a novel to enjoy for its lyrical descriptions and slightly off-kilter Irish craziness.

3.5 stars

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