The New York Times Book Review A dangerous, glorious book: the kind that is likely to make absolutely anyone cry and laugh in public places.
Mark Harris Entertainment Weekly A work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement...Rich and allusive, blisteringly exuberant...one of the most psychologically accurate and moving love stories in recent literature.
Robin Hemley Chicago Tribune In exquisitely sculpted prose, Jamie O'Neill...achieves a kind of richness of scope and ambition that makes one reluctant to come to its tragic and inevitable close.
Set in the year leading up to Dublin's 1916 Easter Uprising, this richly lyrical work tells the story of two young men seeking political, emotional, and sexual liberation as they come of age in troubled times. From a first-time novelist who spent ten years perfecting it, At Swim, Two Boys has been hailed as "the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle" (Kirkus Reviews). In our exclusive author essay, Jamie O'Neill shares his own insights on nationhood, identity, and the inspiration behind his masterful novel.
Published last year in Great Britain, this novel has been compared to works by James Joyce (or Flann O'Brien, whose At Swim-Two-Birds the title plays on), but it has more in common with the film Chariots of Fire in its painterly depiction of male athleticism and relationships. The sheltered son of a pro-British shopkeeper, 16-year-old Jim develops a doting and eventually homosexual relationship with Doyler, a bright boy from an impoverished family, as the two train for an ambitious swim across Dublin Bay on Easter 1916, a date that happens to coincide with a planned Republican uprising. Both become entangled with McMurrough, scion of wealthy Irish gentry, who is back in Dublin following imprisonment in England for indecent behavior. Jim is too na ve and Doyler too politically sophisticated for their years, while McMurrough is typecast as an Oscar Wilde figure. Still, these are rich characterizations, and together with the playfully rendered Irish dialect they outweigh the book's imperfections. O'Neill also offers gorgeous descriptions of the Dublin environs and remarkable details of the period. Recommended for most fiction collections. Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Dublin burned, British troops and Irish separatists exchanged gunfire and artillery shells, and about two hundred and thirty civilians were killed during Easter week in Ireland in 1916. As Tim Pat Coogan writes in 1916: The Easter Rising, the rebel leader James Connolly, injured and confined to the Irish Volunteer headquarters after a few days of bloody fighting, passed the time reading a detective novel. During a rare quiet moment, Connolly dryly remarked, "A book like this, plenty of rest and an insurrection -- all at the same time. This certainly is revolution de luxe." Out in the streets, his militia battled to take the city, fighting with a bravery that has been repeatedly eulogized since. Within a week, the group was forced to surrender, and, like most of the leaders of the rebellion, Connolly himself was executed.
Into this turbulent landscape Jamie O'Neill casts the heroes of his historical novel, At Swim, Two Boys, whose title is a play on the title of Flann O'Brien's landmark Irish comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds. This story takes place in the year leading up to the Easter Rising and investigates the complicated weave of alliances in Ireland; the two Dublin boys struggle not only with their political affiliations but with their religious and sexual identities.
W. B. Yeats spoke to Ireland's scars of strife, famously noting in "Easter, 1916" that, after the Rising, "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." A new volume of Yeats's essays, Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth, examines ancient tales of the land -- an Ireland bewitched by "sociable fairies," the banshee, and the medieval warrior Cuchulain. In fables, Yeats writes, mortals are transformed into "perfect symbols of the sorrow and beauty and of the magnificence and penury of dreams.'' (Lauren Porcaro)
The hunger for liberation -- political, emotional, and sexual -- gnaws at the big heart of this young Irish writer's engrossing, often very moving debut. The title, of course, alludes to "Flann O'Brien's" subversive comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. But O'Neill's real influences appear to be James Joyce's Ulysses and James Plunkett's Strumpet City, a romantic-epic portrayal of Dublin beset by the Troubles. O'Neill focuses initially on Arthur Mack, a widowed Dublin shopkeeper and Boer War veteran whose stubborn loyalty to Britain conflicts with the swirling energies of incipient rebellion against "foreign" rule that capture his neighbors. If Mack is a dreamy, distracted Leopold Bloom, his 16-year-old son James, a model youth seemingly destined for the priesthood or a teaching career, is a kind of Stephen Dedalus -- a passive, well-meaning boy whose life changes under the charismatic influence of his pal Doyler Doyle, a rebel with several causes who draws James into a plan to swim to a nearby island and plant a green flag (symbolizing Ireland's independence). The rapidly growing love the boys share is interrupted when Doyler is imprisoned for "sedition," then absorbed in his duties as a Volunteer soldier -- and is consummated, with bitter irony, when the Dublin streets become a blood-soaked "nighttown." O'Neill's replete characterizations of the aforementioned are deepened by the complex relationships each forms with such other figures as Jim's stoical, quietly perceptive Aunt Sawney, aristocratic Irish nationalist Eveline MacMurrough, and the latter's adult nephew Anthony, a sardonic homosexual (formerly convicted of "indecency") whose imaginary "conversations" with his deceased cellmate explore both Anthony's reluctant involvement with the Volunteers and his conflicted (and, really, rather contrived) dealings with both Doyler and James. Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O'Neill's warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate: altogether, his first the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle.