Sunday 11 December 2016

Books: 50-year saga of an Irish Downton Abbey

Fiction: The Footman, A O'Connor, Poolbeg, tpbk, 464 pages, €16.99

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

The Footman
The Footman

A O'Connor's tenth novel has all the ingredients of a great read - a doomed love affair, an unhappy marriage and infidelity. It's a rags-to-riches story of murder, mystery, guilt and atonement with a large dollop of suspense. Beginning in 1930s rural Ireland and spanning 50 years, The Footman is riveting from the first page.

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Joe Grady is now one of the most successful barristers in London, but nobody is aware of his background. He was once a lowly footman in Cliffenden, the stately home of the Fullertons, an Anglo-Irish family. He gets the job on the whim of the Fullerton's daughter, Cassandra - a beautiful, bored socialite - and the consequences will alter the course of both their lives.

Joe is impressed with the glamour of life at Cliffenden, which is an endless round of cocktail parties, fast cars and dancing to the latest gramophone records. To preserve the family fortune, Cassie is under pressure to marry a repulsive, wealthy American, Wally Stanton, but she is in love with Bowden Grey, the son of local impoverished landed gentry.

Joe becomes their go-between. But Wally manipulates the hapless Joe, who betrays Cassie, condemning her to life in a gilded cage, married to Wally.

Cassie spends the war years in Paris, where her husband collaborates with the Germans and she is photographed at parties with senior German officers. In the intervening years, Joe has prospered. He owns two substantial homes, has a grown-up family and a beautiful wife who is cheating on him.

Now, 50 years after the events at Cliffenden, he finds himself defending Cassie on a murder charge, with a chance for him to atone for a lifetime of guilt. Public opinion is against Cassie, who has fallen on hard times. However, in the courtroom drama that ensues, the truth is finally revealed in this spellbinding tale.

O'Connor's acclaimed historical novel The House was a bestseller at home and abroad, with headlines comparing it to an Irish Downton. It looks like The Footman will follow suit. If you enjoyed reading Atonement, The Go-Between and Tyringham Park, this is one for you.

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