Nov 30, 2008

Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney

Ireland, 1951. A wandering storyteller arrives at a country house and asks for lodgings for the night. In exchange for a bed and a meal, he tells a story – a riveting tale about how Ireland came to be. Among his listeners is Ronan O’Mara, aged nine. Ronan becomes fascinated with the storyteller, and he listens to him night after night. When, at the urging of his devout mother, the old man is asked to leave, Ronan is heartbroken. Somehow he can’t shake off the feeling that those stories were meant for him. And so he begins a quest to find the storyteller again.

This quest marks the beginning of Ronan’s own fascination with Irish history, folklore and myth. It takes him years to find the old man again, but in the meantime we watch him grow up, unveil family secrets, and find more stories. These stories about key moments in the history of Ireland are alternated with the main plot. We have stories about the building of Newgrange, the writing of the Book of Kells, Brian Boru and the Vikings, the adventures of Brendan the Navigator, Strongbow, the Flight of the Earls, the Potato Famine, Parnell, and the Easter Rising, among others.

Though I loved the idea of this book from the start, I was a little doubtful about how well this structure would work. I feared that either the history bits would feel too dry and didactic and intrude on the main storyline, or they’d be interesting but the main storyline would be weak, something put together for the exclusive purpose of holding these episodes from the history of Ireland together.

But I needn’t have worried. The balance between the two couldn’t have been more perfect, and both held my attention completely. The stories, the “history lessons”, don’t feel cold or didactic in the least. They work because they are actual stories, fictionalized accounts built around known facts. This is particularly noticeable in the first few stories, which date back to time periods about which not much is known.

For example, all we know about Newgrange is the approximate date it was built, but in this story the people who built it, and the man who had the idea in particular, are brought to life. The same goes for the monks who wrote the Book of Kells, or for Brendan the Navigator. We don’t know for sure where his trips took him, or if he actually made it to America. But in the story, we go there along with him. It’s exactly because the stories blend history, myth and fiction that they work so well, that they feel so personal and real. And in fact, the relationship between history, storytelling and myth is one of the themes of this book. Frank Delaney says it beautifully in the author's note at the start of the book:
…Imagination and emotion insist on playing their parts in every history, and therefore to understand the Irish, mere facts can never be enough; this is a country that reprocesses itself through the mills of its imagination. But we all do that: we merge our myths and our facts according to our feelings, we tell ourselves our own story. And no matter what we are told, we choose what to believe.
Watching Ronan O’Mara become himself was as fascinating as watching Ireland become Ireland. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Ireland: A Novel is a coming of age story in a double sense: of a country and of a boy. In addition to this, all the other characters, the people in Ronan’s life, are fully-fleshed and complex, and are portrayed with tenderness and subtlety. There is a reason why this should be so, which we are given at the end of the book. It’s not easy to guess what's going to be revealed long before we get there, but that hardly matters. Ronan’s story is still moving, occasionally mysterious, and completely entrancing.

Plus, the book is beautifully written. And it’s full of love for stories, for history and for the land. That same relationship between stories and the land I wrote about recently in my post about The Wood Wife is very much present here. This novel is a tribute to Ireland. It celebrates its past without being hopelessly nostalgic or backwards looking. And it’s full of a love of country that isn’t exclusive or aggressive, that doesn’t come at the expense of snubbing others. It made me want to visit Ireland more than ever before.


Reviewed at:
Trish's Reading Nook
A Striped Armchair (audiobook)
(Let me know if I missed yours.)

24 comments:

  1. That sounds so good. I've always wanted to go to Ireland so I love reading about it.

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  2. Interesting book, my mother is Irish/was. She never took us kids to Ireland so. I heard it is very beautiful

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  3. I was looking at this the other night thinking that I really need to read it in this century! One of these days...

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  4. I'm so glad you have reviewed this. I was wondering if it was any good. I love all things Irish! I will probably read this next March!

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  5. This does sound good. Its good that his book held your attention. I'd love to go to Ireland someday :)
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  6. This sounds wonderful. I love stories about stories.

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  7. I think the way the story is laid out sounds fascinating. Another one for the TBR list.

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  8. wow - this sounds really interesting! i especially like the way the boy thinks the story is meant for him. that kind of tale really resonates with me.

    and i'm also really interested in irish history, so its a nice way to learn about that too. its nice how a lot of irish history is wrapped up in tales and often tales about tales!

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  9. Great review. This sounds like such a wonderful book. I've always wanted to go to Ireland.

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  10. Another fabulous sounding book that I haven't heard of! Thanks.

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  11. It's not the kind of book I would pick up from looking at the cover and the intial paragraph you wrote, but on reading further it seems that would have been the wrong decision. It actually sounds like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for another great review of a book I have never heard of!

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  12. bermudaonion: This is perfect armchair travel :)

    Madeleine: That's too bad! I've never been there either, but it does look very beautiful.

    Kailana: The fact that it's so long discouraged me for a while, but it's one of those that don't feel half as long as they are. I hope you enjoy it!

    Chain Reader: Then you're sure to enjoy it!

    Naida: Me too. It's the next country I want to visit, but who knows when that'll be.

    Memory: Me too. I never get tired of them. And the way the book establishes a connection between history and storytelling is just fascinating.

    Framed: It really is!

    JP: Later in the story you find out he has a reason to feel that way, but I shall say no more :P And yes, you do see those kaleidoscope-like stories a lot in Irish myth. I think that's so cool.

    Dar: Me too, me too. One day!

    Mariel: Reading it I was reminded of your lovely pictures of Newgrange :)

    Rhinoa: It's not a book I'd be drawn to at first glance either. I read it because someone lent it to me and the way they described it made me think I actually would enjoy it...I'm very glad I did!

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  13. This sounds like a wonderful story! And I'd love to learn more about Irish history/culture because they're so interesting. I'm glad the author has balanced the history parts and the storyline perfectly. Thanks for the great review as always, Nymeth!

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  14. This one sounds great. I've always been intrigued by Ireland. Then when I read one of Nora Roberts' trilogies, I like Ireland even more. And now your review... :)

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  15. Wonderful review! I love reading about Ireland and added this book to my TBR.

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  16. I can't believe it, even when it's not fantasy you're reading off my list! This one's on there, only it's been bumped up now after your great review - thanks!
    And the relationship with the land is something I love about Ireland too.

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  17. This sounds really good! I'd love to visit Ireland someday ... wistful sigh.. :)

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  18. I don't know much about Irish history, so I think I'd really enjoy this one. Even if the structure does sound a little odd.

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  19. I will be adding this to my TBR list.

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  20. I'm glad you liked this one, since it's one of my favourite audiobooks ever. :D

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  21. I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Nymeth! I thought the book flowed really well as well--and even made for great reading aloud material.

    On to another and little bit more personal note. In light of Dewey's death, I've been a little bit shaken at how quickly things can change. I wanted to let you know how much I have loved knowing you over the past year and a half. You are an amazing person and your warmth and caring has come to mean a lot to me. You have been incredibly supportive and generous, and I love that I am constantly learning from you. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for being so wonderful.

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  22. Thank you so, so much, dear Trish. And the exact same goes to you. I think you, Debi and I are feeling the same. Others too, of course. Dewey's passing made me realize more than ever how much my blogging friends mean to me - not just as people to be excited about books with (though I love that in itself), but as real people I care about in every sense of the word. As friends, really. You are an amazing person too. Thank you for your friendship.

    And to everyone: I'm sorry I haven't been responding to comments like I usually do. I will return to it soon, I promise. It's just that like Trish said, I've been feeling shaken.

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  23. Ooh! Sounds great. It's been a while since I read something set in Ireland...I'd really like to listen to this on audio book!

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  24. I'm half Irish, and I'd love to visit the country some day. This sounds like a great book. I'm glad too hear you don't get bogged down by the history. As always, great review!

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.