Jamie O'Neill, At Swim Two Boys, Scribner, £17.99
At Swim Two Boys is an unconventional Irish love story. Unconventional because it is a story of the love that develops between two young men, and because it is set in the years immediately preceding the 1916 Easter Rising. Doyler is a smart tough working class kid, proud member of the Citizen Army. Jim is the more meditative character, striving to get a decent education which can help the family move up in the world.
The book is peopled with characters who reflect their times. Jim's dad is a former sergeant in the British Army, pursuing the illusion that the family shop is on the verge of catering to customers more wealthy and prestigious than the impoverished community that surround it. Eveline MacMurrough is an intelligent, ruthless aristocratic rebel, a synthesis of Countess Markiewicz and Maude Gonne. Her cynical brother has recently been released from two years hard labour in an English prison, not for rebel activity but, like Oscar Wilde, for having been caught having an affair with a man. Several real historical figures like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and Edward Carson make minor appearances in the book.
The title of the book is a reference to Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, and at times the narrative veers wildly off into giddy mocking, strange language that suggests Flann O'Brien, or James Joyce in the more stream of thought parts of Ulysses. But these episodes are not really the book's strength, with is the portrayal of love awakening out of the confusion of adolescence, under the severe circumstances of Catholic morality and state repression. Refreshing though it is, to find such a story set amongst socialists and rebels, readers with a radical outlook will disappointed in how they are portrayed. The overall impression that you get of the Easter Rising is that it is the work of dangerously charismatic nationalists. James Connolly is portrayed as having reneged on socialism to become Commander-In-Chief of the Easter Rising. Almost the entire population of Dublin are seen as being hostile to the Easter Rising - something which was the fashion amongst revisionist historian's of the 90's but which can easily be challenged. In this respect the book is no comparison to Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry which is easily the best fictional portrayal of workers and the Easter Rising.
If you want to read a book whose main character is a socialist participant in the movement of 1916 go for Roddy Doyle. O'Neill's is best read not for the politics but as a powerful story of love between two young Irishmen.