Not unlike other small nations that have seen their share of adversity, the Irish are both well versed in their history and proud of having outlived it. The various conquests of Ireland are written so deeply into the fabric of its culture that almost every work of literature that emerges from there, be it historical or not, bears a trace of them. Perhaps for that reason, the phrase "Irish historical novel" hints at overkill. Yet that is precisely what Bairbre T=ibfn's first book, The Rising, aims to be. It transpires between 1891 and 1916¨between the death of Parnell and the violent Easter uprising.
Like most historical novels, The Rising squints at the political events of its day through an unassuming domestic lens. It tells the tale of Michael Carty and Margaret Dempsey, people of different backgrounds who marry and manage to eke a satisfactory existence from a railway worker's salary and several brushes with organized resistance to English rule. While this could make for invigorating prose, T=ibfn's omniscient narrator is so relentlessly pedestrian that there's little opportunity for enlightenment, or even entertainment, along the way.
Only as the story opens does the narrator's bland tone echo the voice of Michael Carty at age 16, disoriented and scared after losing his father, the only parent he's ever known: "He didn't say the words 'my mother.' He never did say those words out loud. Sometimes he said them to himself, and tried to imagine having a mother. But he didn't remember her, and saying the words would be as if he was laying claim to something that wasn't his." In these early scenes, Michael's young sensibility seems delicately rendered in sentences that fall with a simplicity that only later turns flat. Unfortunately, the narrative style remains perfectly static even as Michael grows up, new characters appear, and Ireland irrevocably changes.
In chapter two, after his father's death, Michael abandons his farm and moves to the town of Enniscorthy. Suddenly, in chapter three, Michael vanishes from the narrative and Margaret is introduced. From there on, the novel is prone to narrative stop-and-starts, with hasty explanations pasting together events from the end of the last chapter and the beginning of the new one. In one case, we leave Michael and Margaret surreptitiously courting in Chapter Seven, only to find, in Chapter Eight, Michael reflecting that "Margaret was at home there with the baby, and the boys were probably home from school." What wouldn't we all give for such blank, painless aging.
Looking back at the book from the wise hindsight of page 284, its trouble seems to lurk in its very first sentences. Those all too obviously announce the dual focus, both public and private, of what is to come: "Michael Carty walked across the muddy yard and up the narrow lane. He was going towards the village of Ballyduff hoping to meet his father who had been in Dublin at Parnell's funeral." From the start, The Rising shuns complexity of character and context¨Michael Carty is Michael Carty, and that's that. Dublin is Dublin, and Parnell is dead. What more do you need to know?
Ironically, perhaps the book suffers from the culture's hyper-immersion in its own history. Joyce and Yeats and Synge, et al, have already woven the political events of the past century into brilliant contemporary works of literature. It's almost a sin of omission to revisit those events without paying homage to the towering literary tradition that has come before.
But if such omission is your design¨if you're neglecting literary allusion for the sake of capturing the everyday realism of impoverished, small-town Irish life¨you'd better stick to the standard pact between storyteller and reader. Michael and Margaret are constantly being described at some task¨working, talking, thinking¨but by and large it's the description of a stranger standing across the street, reporting on their actions from an impersonal distance. If historical novels are supposed to bring you inside a vanished world, The Rising only takes you to the door. ˛