dreaming of books 7
Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.
“If you have not seen the day of Revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing.” — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Scribner Classics, 1996. p. 106.
Though partially of Irish stock, I confess to scant knowledge of the Emerald Isle’s history apart from the dates of the 1916 Easter Rising and the gaining of Independence in 1922. So Orna Ross’s After the Rising was a compelling introduction, not least because the beguiling lilt of her prose situates one sure-footedly in a deceptively sleepy burg beyond the Irish Sea. Using various first-person narrative voices in the form of letters and diaries, the novel moves between the events of 1922, the 60s and 70s when the predominant narrator is at school and university, and 1995, when she returns to her village for her mother’s funeral and to confront the family’s history, rent by national politics and local rancour. Such a weaving back and forth between periods allows for an overview of the novel’s historical reach, reminding readers that today’s fervent youth will be but a dusty phrase in tomorrow’s history books.
If I was surprised to find little overt description of the divide between Catholics and Protestants, which I had always thought central to Ireland’s history, this is perhaps more of a comment on my ignorance about the conflict. Sectarian undertones are clearly present, but Ross prefers to filter the narrative through the gossip, grudges and friendships of the fictitious village of Mucknamore, where tribal identities and ingrained prejudices score more deeply into villagers’ lives than religion does. Generational hatreds feel bitterly yet bewildering personal as they are wont to become in small communities. In this, both Ross and Hemingway are on the nail.
Most importantly, this is herstory, the history of the land told through the voices of its women. As such it comes closer to the grain of what the struggle was all about. While all conflicts have their economic and political elements, I believe they tend fundamentally to be about cultural identity (though Marx might disagree): the ‘us’ and the ‘other’. The impression I got was that while the fight for a free Ireland was paramount, cultural identity politics were also of prime importance in deciding what flavour of an independent Eire was sought. The denouement happily expresses a loosening of some of these most fiercely held views, enabling the hope for a more tolerant future to creep in.
After the Rising is part of Ross’s Irish Trilogy, of which the next book, Before the Fall, will soon be completed by In the Hour.
Read more here.