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Star of the Sea - Joseph O'Connor
Review by Russ Haggerty

If you have not read our talk with Joe O’Connor it would be best if you read it first. Click here for Talk with Joe O’Connor.
Done with that? Good, on we go.
I have been at work for some years on a novel of my own and in the chat with Joe I was personally interested in the way he approached the creation of “The Star of the Sea”. It is a very complex book and more than a large effort. His technique was to design and build the entire structure before writing. He did write the last chapter first, as a destination to work toward. He told us he spent years in the accumulation of thoughts, notes, excerpts and historical facts. He then organized all into an outline. We read in other reviews that he covered a floor with charts and maps. He could say at any moment where the ship would be on the open sea. He included many references to the navigation and the elements of a ninteenth century sailing ship on a long voyage.
After digesting the massive years long effort involved it seemed to me more akin to an engineer about to build a bridge than to the creative art of writing a novel. Where, I wondered, was the flair, panache, flamboyance and flash of the writer of great fiction. Where was Joyce’s eye-patch; Wordsworth’s hat and cloak ; Oscar Wilde’s foppish lace? Then I read Joe’s book.
He writes with the style and detail and rich sentences that echo the times he describes. The characters speak from a vocabulary over a century old. The words are absorbed until they disappear and your mind is filled, not just with images, but with the smells and the noises of Europe in the 1800’s. The salt and dead creature odours of the ocean in a storm; the foul, the sour and the sweet of the east end of London. The musty smell of the mud in a barren land that somehow stays on your clothes. The chaotic mix of shouts, feet, animals and thumping as you stare, fascinated, at the elegantly dirty cities in Ireland and England over a hundred years ago.
All that structural organisation I described must have been done by some other guy.
The persistent precision to design the book and its superstructure is one person’s talent. The splash of words in describing a scene seems more another person’s gift. Joe has both, in a split mind. I wonder if he required some refitting between the architectural engineering part and the art of bringing all the well stacked canvasses to life.
The Star of the Sea has all the essentials not so often found in a novel. It isn’t one journey of a sailing ship. It is all of many journeys for the people of its day. The journey of the Irish poor and the journey of the English aristocrats, of course. But more telling and more true are the journeys of the Irish who kept and grew their wealth matched against those who lost their fortunes. The corruption of a man who sank into the dregs of crime through the honest struggle to stay alive.
Joe writes of lives that span the levels of society and makes each understandable within themselves and understandable in their treating of each other.
“The Star of the Sea” is not just a good read - you learn - oblivious to it all, of course.
Here is the era of tall ships - more truth, less beauty. Here is the privation, the pride and the courage as well as the anger, the violence and the amorality of those in a world that left little choice. All told with clear insight and observation.
You finish reading and you feel compelled to start again.


 

Thu, Dec 7, 2017

Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*

Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.



Click for More Culture Corner.





Star of the Sea
by Joseph O'Connor

The epic journey of a famine ship and the lives of its passengers, which Roddy Doyle says is his best yet.
Click here to buy Star of the Sea.

 

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