Title: At Swim, Two Boys
Author: Jamie O’Neil
Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ Fiction
Summary:At its core, this is a love story. Two 16 year old boys, a college boy, Jim Mack and a laborer, Doyler Doyle, make a pact to practice swimming for a year so on Easter of 1916 (unknowingly to them a time of the Easter Rising and Irish rebellion), they will swim to a beacon of Muglins Rock. As their friendship develops, so do other, deeper feelings. But it is also much more than a love story. Mr. Mack, Jim’s father, is a corner shopkeep who has dreams of going up in society. He also has a history (military and broken friendship) with Doyler’s father. Eve MacMurrough is a woman ahead of her time, tough and revolutionary. Anthony MacMurrough is a deviant who doesn’t have a purpose in life. Their stories, and that of so many more characters, collide when Irish nationalism, sexual orientation, Catholic guilt, alcoholism, class identity, socialism, wars, unwed pregnancy, unionism, and loyalty push and pull them in directions they couldn’t imagine.
Stars: ***** (5)
Review: I read this book twice. At first, I thought I was going to give up because of the language. It is a hard read, the author writes in first person, stream of consciousness and uses an Irish dialect and slang. But the more I read, the easier it became (also one of the reasons I re-read it, I missed so much at first before I became used to the writing). The author weaves so much into the story, rich with symbolism and foreshadowing, that every single word on the page matters. The language transformed me into the moment, as if what I was reading on the page was actually happening around me, his use of imagery was vivid and alive. The author also weaves story lines like an expert (and tackles many really hard topics), the fully formed characters with their own motivations and flaws interact with each other and the world at large while being pushed and pulled in unexpected ways. Some of the characters are even predatory or cruel, but have redeeming qualities which adds to their realism. This book also made me cry, the harshness of life during that era is a constant presence throughout the story. This isn’t a read for everyone, it is difficult and requires patience, but for those that can persevere, it is a gem, a literary work that is completely beautiful and moving while being gritty and realistic. And the love story between Jim and Doyler is so innocent and awkward and moving, I fell in love with the boys myself.