Joseph O’Connor’s fiction has always been informed by the legend of the Lone Ranger. From the adolescent rebel punk in Cowboys and Indians to the middle-class criminals of Desperados; from the isolated anti-heroes in The Salesman and Inishowen to the wandering villain at the heart of Star of the Sea, O’Connor has consistently displayed an empathy for society’s outlaws: men bound by their very nature to make mistakes; men with no other choice but to live with the consequences. If O’Connor’s non-fiction, meanwhile, has shown an Irish writer whose consciousness is steeped in the contradictions of the American Dream, then Redemption Falls, his latest novel, brings these twin obsessions together.
Redemption Falls is not quite a sequel to Star of the Sea, but a continuation of the story of the Irish exodus to America. Where Star of the Sea charted the journey of a group of emigrants aboard one of the many famine ships that eventually docked at Ellis Island, Redemption Falls immerses itself in the thick of the Irish-American experience, where the new immigrant community has become embroiled in the political divisions of the Civil War: from the Irish revolutionaries who supported the Union Army to the pro-abolition guerrillas who fought for the spoils of war; from the children dragged in to fight on either side of the American flag to the domestic servants whose lives become political by virtue of accident. Yet O’Connor’s is no insular fictional history, and the Irishness of his characters’ stories is complicated and enriched by inter-racial marriages, anti-slavery sympathies and occasional movements towards life outside of the ghettoised Irish community. Redemption Falls is an Irish novel with a global awareness, a novel that reaches towards the lost histories of cultural assimilation in a world shaped by movement and migration.
In its form, Redemption Falls is a complex novel, and for the first one hundred pages, a demanding read. Following a short opening narrative thread, the first chapters are shaped as an assemblage of ballads, oral testimonies, witness statements and letters. These ‘primary sources’ are designed to present an (often contradictory) historical panorama of O’Connor’s fictional world. They are intermixed with a straightforward narrative that traces the movements of a number of key characters, none of which has a dominant voice, but each of whom is wrought by internal contradictions of their own.
Eliza Duane Mooney is an eighteen-year-old girl who is crossing the country looking for her brother. She is by turns protective mother, proud prostitute and unhesitant killer when necessity demands. Jeremiah ‘Jeddo’ Mooney is the missing young mulatto boy. He is a vulnerable child with the instinct of a man, a boy on the run who can’t stop pining for home. General James Con O’Keefe is a Union Army hero with the temper and temperament of a treacherous villain. In his public and private life he has fallen beyond redemption, but through his friendship with Jeddo he finds salvation in at least one of these spheres. O’Keefe’s wife, meanwhile, the wealthy, artistic Lucia, is a woman desperate for affection but utterly cold, and his maid Elizabeth Longstreet, a runaway slave, finds herself retreating to a captivity of her own design when life at the O’Keefes becomes too much to bear. This cast of complicated characters is completed by A. M. Winterton, an educated cartographer with more interest in money than maps, and a rebel guerrilla and real desperado, Cole McLaurenson aka Johnny Thunders. And Johnny Thunders, the most ostensibly dangerous man in the novel, turns out to be the one on whom the unlikely outcome of the novel depends.
The story of each of these individuals is the story of a country evolving, a geography changing, a landscape being shaped as it is being discovered. It is no accident that one of the main characters is a map-maker, nor that others are ordinary people whose lives have ‘been swallowed by the West’ and written out of history. The landscape that O’Connor walks them through is being constantly re- written, by shifting boundaries within the nascent republic, and by its immigrants too, whose maps are scored with Lake Inisfrees and Liverpools, and Skibereen Counties and O’Malley’s Ravines. For some the journey is flight. For others it is pilgrimage. For all of the characters, though, and for the reader piecing together the historical puzzle, the journey will end when it is least expected.
By juxtaposing first-person testimony, ‘historical’ material and objective narration, O’Connor plays on the reader’s first impulse to believe that everything presented as history is true. The reader must sift through the documents searching for narrative clues and narrators’ infidelities. It is not until the book gets into its stride after the demanding first section, that the narrative threads begin to cohere. Even so O’Connor keeps the pay off until the very end.
If Star of the Sea made Joseph O’Connor a best-selling international writer, Redemption Falls displays a proud refusal to compromise literary quality for popular success. It is a dense, elaborate, and complex piece of historical fiction that immerses itself fully in all the contradictions that history—especially in Ireland—is fraught with. History, O’Connor’s book tells us, is a strange and illusive narrative; our memories are as unreliable, but personal recollections of the past may hold the key to a less fallacious truth. As Jeddo Mooney sings a ballad about the mythical Blackface Napoleon and his gang, he reasons: ‘They must once have been real to be tombed in song?’ Fiction, Redemption Falls suggests, might be another ‘poor man’s mausoleum’; but in poverty there is great richness.