Further confirming his literary talent, versatility and skill for adventure writing of a high order, Watkins ( In the Blue Light of African Dreams ) shows a mature grasp of his craft in this stunning odyssey of a young man's coming-of-age under brutal circumstances. In 1921, flush with his new job as a banker, young Ben Sheridan returns to his home on Jamestown Island off Rhode Island in time to see a spectacular conflagration in which his father, the island's fire chief, is injured. A routine blood transfusion results in tragedy: his father is poisoned by Ben's blood, and dies leaving a mysterious message and indisputable evidence that Ben is not his real child. With the help of the parish priest, Ben goes to Ireland to try to solve the riddle of his real paternity. From the moment he arrives in the country village of Lahinch he is thrust into the merciless battle between the IRA forces and the British Tans, a bloody war of attrition that leads to a series of suspenseful confrontations in which Ben is involved. Though at first he feels trapped, Ben soon realizes that he is bound by loyalty and by ironic circumstance to these hard-pressed, desperate people. Watkins spins his beautifully researched story in compact, tensile and metaphorically charged prose, vivid with images that tie the protagonist's psychological perceptions with the natural world. The portrayal of the brutal realities of the Irish fight for independence is unflinchingly honest and powerful, electrified by scenes of hand-to-hand combat whose veracity leaps from the page through small details and psychological insights. The behavior of ordinary villagers--some turned secret, heroic soldiers, some cooperating with the enemy--is underscored both by the futility of the long struggle and by its necessity. The only flaw in this remarkable novel is a series of scenes in Rhode Island at the time of Ben's father's death. Here the plotting and the dialogue ring false--a curious lapse in an otherwise impeccable narrative. The reader is urged to read those 50-odd pages with a suspension of judgment; once they are past, the novel hurtles along with jolting surprises and a breathtaking immediacy. (Jan.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this remarkable novel of discovery, set in the 1920s, Ben Sheridan journeys from America to Ireland, from detachment to involvement, from ignorance to knowledge. He is ready to settle into a secure banking job after college, but his expectation of a predictable middle-class future is interrupted by a family crisis requiring him to make what he expects to be a relatively short and simple voyage to the Irish village his father left when Ben was born. Unfortunately, his arrival coincides with the start of IRA hostilities, making it safer for him to lie about his business--the first misstep leading into a quicksand of deceit. Watkins produces a clear narrative of increasing tension and violence that steadily draws in the reader, just as Ben is drawn toward his wholly unforeseen destiny. An unusual but satisfying adventure told with understated calm that belies the real horror and tension.-- Ann Donovan, St. Petersburg Junior Coll. Lib., Fla.
YA-- In 1921, Ben Sheridan graduates from college with the promise of a comfortable future as a New England banker, but a different fate awaits him. When his widowed father is seriously injured, a blood transfusion from Ben poisons the man, revealing that Arthur Sheridan is not his biological father. This knowledge, plus a promise to spread Arthur's ashes in his Irish homeland, plunges Ben into a complex, political struggle. He fears that he will never leave Ireland alive, let alone discover the identity of his natural father, who obviously is a critical leader in the IRA. The simple, bold style sliced with frequent, sharp metaphors cuts through any naive or idealistic conceptions readers might have about the effects of civil war. Flesh-and-blood people on both sides are afraid, driven, and engulfed. Watkins provides a powerfully maturing step into a few days of war that promises to last much longer for Ben Sheridan and in the memory of readers.-- Jessica Lahr, Edison High School, Fairfax County, VA
Watkins' first novel, "Night over Day over Night" (1988), was published when he was 24, and brought comparisons with the novels of Remarque and Hemingway for its insight into a young SS trooper's fears and fantasies. Watkins' fourth novel again pulls an uncertain young man, this time an American named Ben Sheridan, into a cause he knows little about: the Irish Republican Army's fight against the British black-and-tans, in 1920. Ben Sheridan's dilemma is established in an elaborate, heartbreaking scene in which his father, a firefighter, is badly burned, and Ben must deliver a direct, emergency transfusion. Then his father, who Ben had always known had mysterious ties to Ireland, dies because Ben's blood is the wrong type. This kind of irony abounds in Watkins: a selfless act of heroism begets an act of love that turns out to be futile. And of course the confusion over blood means Ben's father--or mother, also dead--is not who he thought. He journeys to Ireland to seek out his identity, which he finds in terms of his bloodline and in terms of his courage. Watkins isn't much for love interest; his female characters are drawn efficiently and compassionately, but they never take stage center. So this is Hemingway without the sappy stuff: great adventure, big themes, all bleakly and existentially rendered.
Watkins has outdone himself: this gifted young writer (In the Blue Light of African Dreams, etc.) has written his best yeta successful fusion of a young man's quest for his origins with a harrowing account of the Troubles in Ireland (prior to independence in 1922). Ben Sheridan is the appealing hero and narrator. It's 1921; the Irish-American university graduate has landed his first job, with a Rhode Island bank, and his future seems assured. His mother died young, but Ben is close to his father Arthur, fire chief on Jamestown island. Then, an accident; Arthur needs blood, but the direct transfusion from Ben kills him. The doctor concludes that Arthur could not have been his natural father, and Ben, flabbergasted, is without a road map. Only by seeking out the truth in Ireland (his father seldom spoke of the old country) can Ben impose order on chaos. He takes a cargo ship to Galway. The cargo is guns, as Ben discovers when he is hustled ashore. The innocent Yankee (Watkins scrubs the stereotype clean as a whistle) finds himself in the middle of a war between the IRA and the notorious Black and Tans (British soldiers), a "local feud" with informers everywhere and atrocities on both sides. The British know about the guns and about a mysterious American they figure is Arthur Sheridan (another shock for Ben: his father was a former gun-runner who promised to return); so events push the reluctant Ben into the IRA camp. He does eventually learn the truth of his paternity, but he also learns the truth of his own irreducible essence as he kills two men, refuses to kill two others, and calculates the odds of his survival. Whether it's a peaceful domestic scene or hand-to-handcombat so real it hurts, Watkins's sure touch never falters. The joy comes from watching him find the right image, again and again and again. From start to finish, this is fine work.