Wednesday 26 September 2018

From Sarajevo to Dublin via the Gaeltacht

Fiction: Restless Souls, Dan Sheehan, W&N €17.95

Sarajevo 1993
Sarajevo 1993
Restless Souls

Though set mainly in Dublin and California, the terrible shadow of Sarajevo and the siege that lasted for almost four years, from the spring of 1992, hangs over the narrative of this first novel by a young Irish writer based in New York. In tandem is the story of a young man's suicide, narrated by his brother, Karl.

In Dublin, Karl and his friend Barry ('Baz') mourn Gabriel's suicide. Their friend, Tom, meanwhile has gone to Sarajevo, ostensibly - and improbably - to work as a journalist, though he has no training or experience. He was, muses Karl, "the sort of fella who'd list off body counts from Central American combat zones ..." He has an almost morbid fascination with the world's trouble spots and Sarajevo, the shattered Bosnian capital, is his target, although he has no accreditation from any media operation.

Now his two friends are waiting at Dublin Airport, to meet the deeply traumatised Tom who arrives "as a charcoal-grey ghost" wearing an eye patch. He is largely uncommunicative, even when they take him home to his wan, melancholy mother.

The story is related in alternating chapters: the friends in Dublin; later Baz and Karl in California, where they take Tom to an unconventional sanatorium (the Restless Souls of the title); and terse, shorter chapters from Tom's experiences in the hell of Sarajevo.

The latter chapters work better than those set in Dublin. The Sarajevo sections carry conviction as they explore the horror of the siege and the plight of the trapped people. One could cavil, though, and wonder how Tom can afford to stay in the Holiday Inn though he has no apparent income - the journalistic aspiration having expired at an early stage.

But Dan Sheehan's research into the Bosnian situation in that shameful war carries the ring of authenticity. And the style in which the Sarajevo sections are written is infinitely more satisfactory than the Dublin chapters. There we get laddish slagging and pint-drinking, couched in prose that is facetious and sometimes glib; old-fashioned too, in a Catcher-in-the-Rye kind of way. And the "lads" are curiously lacking in context: they don't seem to work or have any aspiration to attempt gainful employment, though there is a half-hearted attempt to suggest that Karl has acquired some skill as a photographer.

There are well-done passages concerning Karl and Gabriel, their alcoholic mother and their fond memories of their foster parents; enjoyable passages, too, set in a Gaeltacht college where to utter a word of English means expulsion and to steal the headmaster's whiskey is definitely a high-risk venture. They are there, needless to say, to pursue "birds" rather than to gain proficiency in the kingly and melodious Gaelic. (Could some bright spark write a thesis on the place of the Gaelic Summer College in Irish fiction, starting with Benedict Kiely's 1946 novel Land Without Stars?)

Restless Souls is an uneven book that could have profited from stern pruning and ruthless excising of the more painful smart-ass dialogue. In its structure, though, it is ambitious and often effective. And even moving at times.

Karl and Baz finally get Tom to the American clinic, pausing on the way for an idyllic break in a camp with some amiably welcoming hippies. Readers hoping for a cathartic ending with lots of 21st century sturm und drang will be disappointed; the conclusion is protracted and sentimental.

A novel with many good points, though the frenetic over-writing weakens its impact.

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