Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Two boys & the Easter Rising

I'm shocked to realize on this St. Patrick's Day that I seem to have never written here about one of my all-time favorite novels: At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill. I read it when it was published in this country eight years ago. I loved it. It slayed me. It left me a quivering mess. It stayed with me. O what a wonderful book can do.

To boil it down, which does this big book a definite injustice, it is the story of two teenaged boys in Dublin who fall in love at the same time they are swept up into the Irish republican struggle that culminates in the great Easter Rising of 1916. The two aspects of the book--tender heartbreaking love story and stirring portrayal of actual political-historical events--blend beautifully in just the way I wish more novelists would attempt. The scenes in which O'Neill depicts the main characters actually going through the events of the Easter Rising, moment by moment, are stunningly brought to life. All the passion, confusion, violence, rage and hope of the living struggle are there on the page. As are, equally, achingly, all the many dimensions of the boys' emerging love as they come of age and grapple with their gay identity amid their nation's great battles for independence from British colonialism.

This is also a novel of the highest literary achievement. The language throughout is stunningly grand, original, challenging, astounding. You open it and are at once whipped aloft as if by a whirlwind and there you stay, swirling about in the nether regions, the glorious heavens of grand innovation married to meaningful content, until you get to the last page and return to earth. Where you just might find yourself sitting and sobbing for a good hour or so, be warned.

When I read At Swim, Two Boys eight years ago, I was so enthused that I dug around and located the author's email address, then sent him a gushing fan letter. He was incredibly gracious in reply, writing a substantive, thoughtful and encouraging response. The next month he came to this country on book tour and I went to a reading where he signed my copy and we shared a brief but heartfelt conversation. I've held on to my feelings for his book and him ever since, along with a fantasy about asking him for a blurb if I ever manage to get my own novel published. Most of all, though, I cling to this brilliant, beautiful novel as a evidence of what literature can and ought to do.

For the valiant liberation soldiers who "bore their fight that the freedom's light might shine through the foggy dew," here is a tribute from the Wolfe Tones.