In the bitter winter of 1847, a ship named Star of the Sea sails from Ireland, bound for New York. It is a miserable November, the cold seeming worse because of the Great Famine that has stricken the country. Thousands are dying from starvation and disease. Thousands are fleeing, after selling everything they owned to buy passage to America. And thousands are perishing in the attempt. Joseph O'Connor tackles a tragedy too long ignored. He turns the writing over to G. Grantley Dixon, an American journalist traveling home to Manhattan on the Star. Thus the story feels more authentic, as Dixon uses excerpts from the captain's log and bits and pieces from his own unpublished novel, along with other similarly clever literary devices. We join Dixon and other first class travelers aboard the Star, a ship with a dank hold overfull of steerage passengers with little choice but to bear the wretched filth --- and often too weak to care.
O'Connor has created some wholly unlovable characters. A notable few of the cast are brilliantly moral, despite overpoweringly desperate conditions in the midst of an historical bleakness. Lord Kingscourt, sailing with his wife and two sons, comes on as a quite likable fellow at first, a fellow fallen on hard times of his own --- and hard times of his own making. As you get to know him, his darker side slowly emerges. I finally found myself nearly devoid of sympathy for this errant soul. But Lord Kingscourt is a product of his past and his choices, as indeed we all are. He fell in love with the wrong woman and spent his life in marital misery. Mary Duane, his children's nanny --- and the object of his desire --- sees things from a different viewpoint. She lost a husband and a child, and now she does what she must to survive. Lurking in the corridors, on the decks and in the hold is the Ghost, Pius Mulvey, a murderous prison escapee with a plan for assassination aboard the ship. As the Star sails, Lord Merridith, his wife Laura, Mary Duane and the despicable Pius Mulvey are profiled.
Everywhere in this novel are the stark reminders of the chasm between classes. The present action takes place onboard the ship bound for America with her starving and diseased, but hopeful, cargo. Unfortunately, many of the steerage passengers, carried below decks in the frigid hold with clogged toilets and stinking blankets, will not make the journey alive, much to the good captain's sorrow. Meanwhile, in First Class, the tables are set with fine cutlery, the wine is abundant, and the beds in the private cabins are warm and snug.
I am a week late with my review of this book because I just didn't want it to be finished. I love to savor a good book, but this one gets inside your soul. There is so much going on --- injustices that evoke a sense of outrage, a dose of history (with a few authorial liberties taken), secrets revealed right and left about the characters, and a few famous ones, like Charles Dickens, wandering onto the page now and then --- that it helps to put it down and take a while to ponder O'Connor's message.
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, written with the musical lilt of the Irish and a hint of the Erin impishness. O'Connor didn't simply write this book --- he choreographed it.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011