Monday 19 February 2018

Fiction: The Lonely Sea and Sky by Dermot Bolger

New Island €13.95

The Lonely Sea and Sky by Dermot Bolger
The Lonely Sea and Sky by Dermot Bolger

Hilary A White

Dermot Bolger's father was a merchant sailor during the Emergency and his experiences left deep scars that rarely revealed themselves. This 12th novel from the poet, novelist, playwright and all-round Dublin laureate seeks to pay homage to such men who risked much for neutral Ireland.

To do this, he recalibrates the true 1943 story of Irish vessel the Kerlogue into a straight-up rollicking wartime adventure and coming-of-age saga. While returning to Ireland from a trade run to Lisbon, the vessel received an SOS signal from a German reconnaissance plane and rescued 168 German navy crewmen from certain death in the treacherous Bay of Biscay following an Allied attack.

The episode is seen through the eyes of Jack Roche, a 14-year-old from smalltown Wexford who lands a job on board as a cabin boy. Jack's father went to sea and more than likely perished from a German U-boat strike. On the Kerlogue, faced with the men who may have been responsible, he learns the nuances of right and wrong as only the code of the open seas can teach, a world undiluted by the terrestrial politics. A beautiful romantic interlude whilst docking in Lisbon also opens Jack's eyes to the realities of the war as he loses his heart to a young Czech Jew living off her wits. Bolger sculpts a boy's emergence into manhood with tenderness and heartbeat.

Bolger's unforced style sings with colour, humour and excitement. But it's the way he smuggles "the bigger themes" into the narrative hull that grants this historical fiction "modern classic" status.

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