Robert Shannon is orphaned and sent from Ireland to live with his mother’s estranged family in Scotland, where a frugal existence in a dour town looks set to be his world. His maternal great-grandpa becomes an important character in his life despite grandpa’s disdain of Catholicism, and Robert’s paternal great-grandma’s active encouragement of it. Through his childhood amidst the prejudice and fear of religion, and the forming of fierce friendships and future hopes, Grandpa is not only there to advise, but often to rescue. As the years advance this relationship is often turned on its head – much to the exasperation of Robert. But Grandpa has the last say, in a moving and deeply satisfying denouement.
This was an incredibly absorbing, insightful read. A tender coming-of-age novel which highlights the strong oppositions between Catholics and Presbyterians, and how – often with gentle humour – this impacts on young Robert trying to find his way in life and make sense of historical, often puzzling beliefs. But Robert discovers he has a scientific mind, and as he matures his ambition to be a doctor leads him along a difficult and often disappointing path, fraught with obstacles. The depth and variety of character and rural scene-setting, brings this period of Edwardian history to life and makes perfect sense of the title.
A novel based around a North East coal-mining town in the early 1900’s. This was the age of capitalism and the rapid growth of industry, interrupted only by the first world war. For a while, fighting on the front for King and country seemed a better alternative, until the reality hit and few hero’s returned home in one piece. But for most working men in this northern town, this era meant the continuous daily grind of working below ground in pitiful conditions, often facing the possibility of death – or starvation if they came out on strike. Socialism was beginning to raise its head but more often than not it was considered a dangerous and dirty word. Joe Gowlan escapes the mine by running away to the big city, living on his wits and looking for every opportunity to better his life. Unscrupulous, full of swagger, and prepared to take risks, Joe climbs the gilded ladder mostly by exploitation and cunning. He avoids conscription, continuing to work his way into a number of lucrative business deals presented by the war.
David Fenwick, also born into the life of a miner along with his father and brothers breaks away from a life below ground by educating himself. He looks set to achieve a B.A. until his head is turned by pretty inveterate social-climber, Jenny. Determined to do right by everyone and full of integrity, David is the voice of the working man and after playing his part in the war eventually breaks into politics; only to go head-to-head with Joe Gowlan.
Arthur, sensitive son of the mine owner becomes estranged from his father after a terrible flooding disaster in the pit kills hundreds of men, including David’s father and brother. Like David, Arthur suspects his father failed to invest enough in planning and safety. He refuses to fight in the war as he only sees more death and destruction, and Arthur is thrown into prison. When he eventually takes control of the pit, Arthur spends too much money on improving working conditions and when the big industrial slump comes along and the workers riot, he’s forced to sell out to Joe Gowlan.
The strength of this novel lies in the richness of the story and the strong social messages throughout, skilfully expressed through real, multi-layered characters. The hopeless, fearful trudge of life in the mining community is well contrasted with those lives of the rich fat cats in charge; the steak and oyster feasts, the gleaming cars and the ignorance of working life. And yet despite the hardships of the mining towns there is a relentless pride and a strong sense of comradeship. Arthur serves as a wonderful bridge between the classes, and yet his lack of hard-nosed business acumen results in the complete collapse of the mine, and this subtlety adds a clever dimension to the black and white politics of the day.
The understandable greed of Joe Gowlan after such humble beginnings. The strength, pride, and stoic nature of David’s mother, Martha, faced with a strike in the dead of winter, no food, no money, and giving birth to a stillborn child. And those powerful scenes when the mine is flooded and husbands, brothers, and sons, are trapped below ground; scenes which will stay in my mind for a very long time. This is just great storytelling, a huge saga involving many intertwined threads, the triumphs and struggles of life through many different eyes, and the harsh reality that the good guy does not necessarily win.
Stephen Desmonde is expected to succeed his father as the rector of a rural parish, but Stephen is a sensitive, passionate artist driven by an obsession to discover the beauty in truth. The lack of understanding and subsequent derision from his family results in Stephen leaving for Paris – the hub of all things creative – and then to travel across Spain. He’s a passive character, spurned in love, starved, cheated, forced to take a tough road, and to suffer terribly for believing in his art. Material comforts are sparse but his journey, both artistically, physically, and spiritually, all culminate into a rich and multi-layered experience.
So many great artists are not understood or revered until after their death. Desmonde also falls victim to this stereotype, although arguably some of this down to his pride and lack of interest in material gain. Above all, Stephen Desmonde’s story exposes the flaws of Christian beliefs and the perceived realities of war during the early 20th century. Desmonde and his family are real flesh and blood, as are the many characters who play numerous supporting roles. The depiction of life at Stillwater in England, and of France and Spain are deep and rich without compromising reality.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Cronin is a master of historical detail and perspectives, and manages to extract every ounce of empathy for his protagonist.
James Brodie is a desperately proud man, not only of his hatter’s business but of his tasteless pile of a house, built purely to impress. He’ll go to any lengths to protect his social standing in the town, but not only is he delusional, he’s also a bully. A selfish, self-indulgent character who rules the family home with a rod of unforgiving iron. His wife is broken-spirited and worn to the bone with her domestic duties, none of which are ever completed to his satisfaction. He’s mortally disappointed in Matthew, his feckless son, a boy who is indulged by his doting mother. Brodie sends him on a long trip abroad – to make a man of him. Their eldest daughter, soft-hearted, dreamy Mary, is mostly ignored. When she makes a grave romantic mistake she’s banished from the house during a terrible storm, and almost loses her life in shocking circumstances. The younger daughter, Brodie’s favourite, is set to win a scholarship but the relentless pressure and threats placed upon her to succeed, is not without dire consequence.
Deliciously dark and disturbing. I was completely gripped by this story! Cronin’s tense, detailed narrative is incredibly compelling. This novel is the study of a character driven by his pride and anger, a man hooked on controlling behaviours, abuse, and tyranny. The gradual decline of Brodie’s empire and his self-destruction is sublime. The strong Scottish dialogue adds vibrant authenticity and drama. And yet the overall darkness gives tremendous power then to the chinks of light towards the end for Mary, and Matthew.