Thursday 21 February 2019

Two women's stories of war and peace; a century apart in west Cork

Fiction: A River in the Trees, Jacqueline O'Mahony, Riverrun €16.99

A River in the Trees
A River in the Trees

Anne Cunningham

It's still only January and already we're knee-deep in War of Independence centenary material. It's pouring out of every orifice of the media, social and otherwise, which could make for a very long year! But there's comfort to be had if this debut novel is a gauge of the quality of work we can expect.

It's a daring move for an author to use the War of Independence as metaphor for personal independence, but somehow Jacqueline O'Mahony has managed it.

Ellen, in 2019, has fled her husband, her job and her seemingly charmed life in London to seek some respite and maybe think about buying a second house in west Cork, her mother's ancestral home place. After years of attempting to have a child, her relationship with her husband is showing the cracks. This break is intended to bring Ellen some peace. Young Hannah, in west Cork in 1919, is living with her family, under siege from the local unit of the bloodthirsty Black and Tans. Her father has been harbouring rebels in the attic and word has gotten out. The whole family will inevitably have to pay the price. Hannah finds herself falling for one of the rebels and soon afterwards her father receives a particularly savage beating, leaving him blind. A thirst for revenge, along with a (misplaced) passion for the rebel leader O'Riada, will eventually see this formerly mild-mannered farmer's daughter picking up a gun.

The contrast between the respective crises of Ellen and Hannah is, in itself, food for thought. Ellen is crumbling as a result of personal and private issues. Hannah on the other hand, is suffering from an escalation of Black and Tans' atrocities, destroying her whole community. Ellen at first struggles to maintain a quietly dying marriage, then opts to fight for personal independence. Hannah is left reeling by her encounter with the freedom fighter, prompting her to fight for her country's independence. Curiously, though, she later finds herself fighting for independence on a deeply personal level. It is the similarities rather than the obvious differences, slowly revealed through the storyline, that lead to a connection which spans 100 years, between Ellen and Hannah.

O'Mahony's depiction of the post-Tiger, jaded and vaguely oppressive aura of this far-flung dead end village is particularly effective. The fictional Lisarna, miles away from the tourist trail, is no haven of cead mile failtes or paddywhackery and couldn't be further from De Valera's vision of comely maidens dancing jigs at country crossroads. This is a tight neighbourhood, full of chattering, nosy locals with their feigned congeniality. "She'd forgotten how much the people here loved to tell you things about themselves. It could almost fool you into thinking they were friendly."

Yet it's the very nosiness of the local landlady that leads to Ellen discovering the long-held secrets of her forebears.

Ireland has again been flung into discussions about national independence, 100 years on, and this elegantly-penned novel offers some historical perspective. But while it's backlit by the struggle for Irish sovereignty, the pith of it is the struggle of two women, separated across a century, for their own personal sovereignty.

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