Monday 24 June 2019

A River in the Trees: Family secrets haunt a small Irish town scarred by conflict

Fiction: A River in the Trees, Jacqueline O'Mahony, Quercus Books, hardback, 336 pages, €16.99

Debut: London-based Jacqueline O'Mahony is from Cork
Debut: London-based Jacqueline O'Mahony is from Cork
A River in the Trees

Eilis O'Hanlon

Two stories, set in the same place, 100 years apart. It's a tried and tested literary device, allowing authors to explore how people and societies change, and how, sometimes, they don't.

In the case of this debut novel by Jacqueline O'Mahony, the place is Lisarna, a town somewhere in West Cork. The first story centres on Ellen in the here and now. She's returned from London to view the dilapidated farm that once belonged to her family, and which has now come up for sale. Dissatisfied with her life, she's looking for a new beginning, though it's not immediately clear what's brought her back. Through her disparaging, condescending eyes, Lisarna is "a small, dull place", its inhabitants "an inward-looking people, suspicious and mean-minded most of them, content to live out their days under the drizzle". She's sure of one thing: "Anyone with a bit of gumption got out."

The second story, cleverly timed to take advantage of this year's historic centenary, takes place in 1919, as the brutal War of Independence begins in earnest. Living in the same house, the O'Donovans, Ellen's antecedents, give shelter to rebels who are carrying out raids on the Crown forces, and face the wrath of the Black and Tans in reprisal, an event still remembered locally, and with some remnants of bitterness towards the family, a hundred years later.

Also lurking in the background is a mysterious scandal around the eldest daughter of the house back then, Hannah, sister to Ellen's great-grandmother, who was rumoured to have had a baby with the rebel leader, O'Riada.

He later become a junior minister in the Michael Collins government, while she was said to have taken her child and headed to America, never to be heard from again.

Back in the present day, the farmhouse has fallen into disrepair, but it draws Ellen nonetheless, and she puts in an offer, prompting her indifferent English husband, Simon, to come over to Ireland to dissuade her from continuing with the purchase. Or possibly not. Their relationship is not what it was; Ellen has recently lost a baby, and with it any real appetite for life.

In less deft hands, Ellen could easily have been a rather irritating character, as she bemoans having "become this fat person who keeps her head down, and tries to get through the day. I've become someone who apologises before she does anything. I'm afraid of everything now". In a comment to which many female readers will readily relate, she's even certain that "she could not be the heroine of her own story if she was a fat person". She's well aware that being the former beauty correspondent for a national newspaper only adds to the ironic absurdity of her existence.

The author, though, never lets her heroine's self-absorption overwhelm the reader's sympathy. "Underneath this fat," Ellen insists, "I am still the person I was, and I will be the person I was, again." The reader is won round to the quietly desperate struggle of a woman realising she hasn't lived the life she could and should have had, and trying belatedly to reclaim it.

Her way of doing that is by learning more about Hannah, a woman whose story she was never told growing up, though her estranged mother warns her pointedly to leave the past alone. That's consistent with the miserable advice she's always given her daughter to "say nothing... don't be telling everyone your business... don't be making a fool of yourself for anyone."

Secrets, of course, soon come to the surface, and Ellen learns that her family may have been "the wrong sort of people", which is why, shortly after the events described in the novel's earlier narrative, they left for the city, where things didn't go much better for them.

Hannah is made of more spirited stuff than Ellen, but is trapped in a world which doesn't offer any opportunities to be the woman that she might have been. Surrounded by violent men on both sides of the conflict, a cruel church, a family which doesn't know how to deal with female sexuality, and oppressive poverty, she seems doomed to sink under the weight of it all. The author is from Cork, and has an academic background in history, so her control of this period detail never falters.

Like most split narratives, A River in the Trees suffers somewhat from its divided attention. Ellen's tale of a return home and a reckoning with the secrets of the past is sketched on a small scale, making it feel more like a longish short story than a novel, while Hannah's story, which recalls in places the magisterial early novels of Jennifer Johnston set during the same formative period of Irish history, doesn't have the space it really needs to grow from melodrama into something more tragic.

The tentative reconciliation which ends Ellen's story also feels slightly fabricated, rather like the final pages of Great Expectations which Charles Dickens stitched on to satisfy the sentimental appetite for a happy ending.

What saves it from the twin dangers of smallness and schmaltz is O'Mahony's prose, which remains supple and expressive throughout. The London-based first-time author finds the emotion in each moment without forcing it, and she knows when to step back and let her characters speak and act for themselves, which many more experienced novelists still struggle to do. She's definitely one to watch.

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