Friday, August 17, 2007

Tipperary by Frank Delaney

N.B. -- I wrote this review for Random House and the Early Reviewer program of www.LibraryThing.com. See the website for details.

Historic fiction is one of the many “phases” I went through in my reading life. Cecilia Holland was my favorite along with a few others. My favorite periods were medieval England, ancient Greece and Rome, and 19th century England.
In all of that reading, however, I never encountered anything quite like Frank Delaney’s Tipperary. Neither have I ever read any book along with another person leaning over my shoulder and commenting on the story or providing additional background which mostly confirms the story Charles O’Brien spins.
And spin he does. O’Brien (and, of course Delaney) prove the value of Tolstoy’s advice that “nothing should escape the notice of the writer.” The detail they provide draws the reader into late 19th and early 20th century Ireland. This of course is the heyday of James Joyce, one of my favorite writers. While Joyce focused on the city, Delaney covers the country.
However, I find the characters and situations somewhat unbelievable – even with the validation of a “modern day narrator.” It strikes me as most improbable that a country herbalist would meet the cast of characters that populate the turbulent times in early 20th century Ireland.
The problem is compounded in the brief meeting with James Joyce. As a Joyce scholar (my master’s thesis was on Joyce), I find it entirely incredible that Charles would offer a passing comment to “make them [Joyce’s novels] complicated.” The house of cards falls flat for me on this one incident. Furthermore, Delaney has a character quote John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” out of context and completely inappropriately.
The story is interesting, but not enough to suspend disbelief to the extent Delaney asks the reader to do. Could Charles have really walked into Dublin during the middle of the Easter 1916 uprising, and as easily have walked out? Remember Dr. Mudd? He was the surgeon who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg on the fateful night in April of 1865. He was tried and convicted despite some pretty convincing evidence of his innocence; his name continues to be smeared to this day. Considering the brutality of the English response to the Easter uprising, as correctly reported by Charles, I find it implausible that he could have simply walked away from Bolands Mill following the surrender of the Sinn Fein volunteers.
In my opinion, historical fiction must carry the reader into a distant time and culture without any nagging doubts as to the plausibility of the characters or events. Forrest Gump did it, and I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t buy it now. Three of five stars.
--Chiron, 8/16/07

1 comment:

Ben said...

I think the point Delaney is trying to make with all of these outlandish stories is exactly the point you make at the beginning of the article. Charles begins the novel by saying, "Be careful about me." All of his stories, from the Easter Uprising to his various encounters with the famous are just that: stories!

One of the things I loved about this book is that you don't have to get worried by the historical accuracies or inaccuracies. You know right from the start that not only are you reading fiction, but even the story within the story is questionable to say the least.