At Swim, Two Boys - Jamie O'Neill
Every so often a book comes along that you have such high expectations for.
Even the cover of this one made me want to read it.
The reviews I'd read made it sound like the experience I was looking for in a novel.
This is almost the worst novel I've ever read. Not only is the language so convoluted and in such a strong Irish idiom that it's hard to just relax and read, it's not actually worth the effort when you have read it.
The story of the love between the two boys is like one thread in a vast tapestry, which depicts the history of the Irish struggles leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising. One thread. Imagine trying to follow that thread in the tapestry. It keeps getting lost in the mass of other detail that you're not interested in. In the end, it's such a tiny little thread that you come to the end and wonder why you bothered following its path in the first place.
The relationship is never believable. It's used as a plot device, the boys either wanting each other, or not, dependant on how much longer the author wants to drag the thing out through the novel. It's supposed to work up to an explosive climax - the allegory of the swim being critical here - but when he gets them there, it's told in such a coy way that it's just flat. Not only are the boys used as plot devices in the book, so is the other main gay character, the slightly older man who takes them under his wing and nurtures their relationship and then saves one of their lives. Oh, that's after he ruthlessly pays one of them for sex and rapes him. Very consistent characterisation. However, in theory, he could have had a whole book written about him. His history, for me, was much more interesting than that of Ireland. Condemned to hard labour in an English prison for being caught with his chauffeur, he emerges bitter and traumatised by this experience-rightly so, and it would have been for more interesting for me to have explored this oppression, than that of Ireland.
I don't think graphic sex is necessary to make a good book. Not at all, and my other reviews will bear this out, but it's not just the absence of a description of any kind (okay, he calls an erection a "stand" - wow, hot [not]) that really annoyed me about this book, it's that there's no passion. When the boys finally get together, after a year of requited longing, they are pushed into sharing a bed by the lack of accommodation in the house. They don't even kiss, wanting to save themselves for the big moment the next day, after the swim. Yeah. It's just utterly unrealistic. These are teenage boys, bursting with hormones and natural inclinations, yet they lie there like old spinsters. But it suits the author's need to have this big scene with the swim, which represents some kind of Irish push for freedom, so he won't let his characters have a natural life of their own.
It's indicative of the extent to which this book bored me to tears that I didn't even care what happened to any of them at the end, which is saying something, because the end isn't easy to accept.
If you want to read gay fiction, then I suggest you steer well clear of this one. If you want to read a long, boring novel about Irish history, then go ahead.
I've been far too cruel; it's not because I'm English, I swear. It's just that this book is not gay fiction, and I feel cheated that it's being sold as that to market it to a bigger audience. Take my advice and go for some of the other, truly life-enhancing novels we've reviewed.
This novel comes trailing impressive credentials therefore I picked it up with great expectations. Ten years in the writing they said, author toiling nights as a hospital porter snatching moments at the keyboard to produce a masterpiece of fiction. Received the biggest ever advance for an Irish novel…£250, 000. Does it live up to the hype? Well, yes…and no.
Ambitious in scope, the book examines (over 600 pages) the growth of Irish nationalism and the search for gay identity against the background of the Easter Rising in Dublin, 1916. Basically, what you get is a gay perspective on early Irish republicanism. Sounds controversial? It is.
The novel maintained my interest to the end, though it did flag in sections. It's heavy going until you get into the way of the characters, overtly Irish dialogue and use of unfamiliar words (seldom have I had such frequent recourse to the dictionary). The author uses individual POV for his main characters and head switches can be confusing. The narrative swings back and forth in the timeline as a result. I found that frustrating as it spoiled the pace of the story. However these are minor stylistic quibbles.
The true heart of the book is a romantic triangle between two 16 year old boys, Doyler Doyle and Jim Mack, and their older mentor, Anthony MacMurrough. One has sex with him, the other engages intellectually and spiritually. The love story, however, becomes secondary to political and historical considerations. Therein lies the main weakness of the book.
I don't want to give too much away, but it'll come as no surprise given the book's Irish setting and historical background that it concerns suffering, personal and national. Noble self-sacrifice in the cause of patriotism is set above romance. Fine if you're not looking at the love story as focus of the book. I was, so I'm afraid the writer's decision to bend characters to the demands of historical context and political point scoring (well it seemed that way to me) made the final section of the story unsatisfactory and melodramatic.
I really did not like the ending, and not because I need fluffy romance. I like to see characters treated fairly by their creators. O'Neill goes for a calculated conclusion linking events to the rise of the IRA and ongoing Troubles in Ireland.
Okay, so I have issues with the book, but there is much good to be found. It's intense and amusing, passionate and moving. I have no problem with the notion that Irish liberty and freedom for gay people should be linked together. That's partly why I had difficulty with its outcome. Would an uplifting message not have had greater impact?
A large chunk of the story is devoted to a planned swim out to an island in Dublin bay for the boys to plant an Irish flag and consummate their slow burning relationship. Emerging nationalism in Ireland at a time of upheaval meshes well with adolescent discovery of sexual identity. Jim tells MacMurrough that he loves Doyler, 'And he's my country.'
If you need graphic slash you won't find it here. Sex is used sparingly, though effectively. There are liberal sprinklings of eroticism and some delicious turns of phrase.
The MacMurrough character was my favourite in the book. His relationship with the boys over-shadowed the love story between Jim and Doyler. Anglo-Irishman MacEmm, as Jim calls him affectionately, has returned to aristocratic patriot Aunt Eva's home to recover from the disgrace of imprisonment for conduct 'unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort'. A sad and lonely man, full of self-loathing, he carries prison walls with him. Forced to subsist on a weekly allowance of £2 ('four fucks, and no fags') he uses Doyler in an arrangement of mutual benefit. Coaching Jim for the boys' swim, he falls in love, and finds solace aiding their affair, even though it's against his own interest (martyr complex?). The boys lap up his retelling the story of the Sacred Band of Thebes, mighty army of lovers. Male bonding that develops into a sexual relationship is a theme of the book, with emphasis on tender affection, comradeship, rather than sex, recognising the value of friendship as basis for long-term commitment. Yet O'Neill cannot give us a happy ending.
It's a story certainly worth reading. Epic in scale, I think it'd make a very decent film. Just keep a hanky handy.
Publisher: Scribner ISBN: 0743207149
Buy it HERE from Amazon UK
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