Tuesday 10 December 2019

Review: Fiction: The Soldier’s Farewell by Alan Monaghan

Macmillan, £12.99
Available withfree P&P on www.kennys.ie or bycalling 091 709350

John Boland

At 900 pages, Alan Monaghan's trilogy about love and conflict -- completed by The Soldier's Farewell -- is almost as long as War and Peace, and though the prospective reader may be advised not to expect either the supreme narrative command or the profound psychological insights that characterise Tolstoy's masterpiece, nonetheless Monaghan's is an impressive achievement.

Whether we want yet another dramatisation of combat in the trenches and the streets of an emerging Ireland is another matter. Haven't Jennifer Johnston, Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Sebastian Barry told us all we need to know about the hell that was the Great War?

And hasn't the Irish struggle been exhaustively, indeed sometimes exhaustingly, chronicled by Barry, Roddy Doyle and such earlier novelists as James Plunkett -- not to mention by popular histories and countless television programmes? What's left to be said?

Nothing, really, and if you read Monaghan's trilogy in search of fresh historical perspectives you'll be disappointed, though if you're unacquainted with the basic facts of the Great War, the fight for Irish independence and the calamitous Civil War that ensued, he provides a fairly reliable primer -- all of it enshrined in a cleanly written, well paced and confident narrative.

Following on chronologically from The Soldier's Song and The Soldier's Return, Monaghan's concluding volume finds the trilogy's hero, Stephen Ryan, in the Dublin of 1921, still traumatically recalling his Great War ordeal but now drawn into supporting and aiding Michael Collins's treaty negotiations in London.

Meanwhile, his brother Joe remains vehemently with the diehard republican faction -- a fraternal rift that, in the manner of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, will be exacerbated further when they find themselves on opposing sides in the bitter and bloody civil war that ensues.

Various real-life figures -- notably Collins, Emmet Dalton, Erskine Childers and Liam Lynch -- are adroitly and vividly woven into the action, while intriguing subplots involve an obnoxious Trinity mathematics professor, who passes off as his own work a brilliant thesis written by Stephen's fiancee, Lillian, and a psychopathic gunman with murderous designs on her.

These help to liven up an overly-familiar story, though their impact would be greater if Lillian herself registered as more than a cardboard cut-out of independent-minded womanhood.

In the end, as befits a conventional tale conventionally told, everyone gets their just deserts, leaving the reader to admire a skilfully told historical saga while wishing that it was something more.

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