The 'Star of the Sea' is a ship taking Irish emigrants from Liverpool to New York in 1847 at the height of the Potato famine. Steerage class are on starvation rations; diseases such as dysentery claim new victims daily. Tensions are high in First Class: bankrupt David Meredith, Lord Kingscourt, ninth Earl of Carna suspects journalist and aspiring novelist Grantley Dixon of sleeping with his wife. Kingscourt's father the eight Earl had evicted many tenants, allowing them to starve during the famine. Because of this, Pius Mulvey, a cripple, has been given the task by an Irish secret society of murdering the Earl before they reach America. To complicate matters the Earl's maid, Mary Duane, has sexual and/ or familial links with the Earl, Mulvey, and Mulvey's brother.
As the voyage progresses and conditions get worse this tangle of relationships grows daily more tense.
The novel is written in beautiful prose and the story is kept interesting through numerous flashbacks explaining the back-story of each of the principal characters. This is important because one knows from the start that Mulvey intends to murder Kingscourt and that Kingscourt will die. There were times, however, when I thought that O'Connor was trying too hard to make his politico-historical points about how dreadfully the starving Irish were treated, particularly during the potato blight. These sometimes got in the way of the plot.
I also found it hard to suspend disbelief in the plot. The three main characters - Kingscourt, Mulvey and Duane - are as enmeshed in each other as in the most outrageous Victorian novel. Perhaps this was the point: Dickens plays a walk-on part when Mulvey gives him the inspiration for Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights, which Dixon suspects Kingscourt of authoring, plays an important part in the climax. The twist on the penultimate page was unnecessary and did not make the story any more believable.
The characters are, however, interesting. Each one has at least two sides. The evil Lord Kingscourt, father of the present Earl, is on the whole a thoughtful and reasonable man although the pivotal interview between himself and his son is notable for the way in which he displays an alarming tendency to flip between two sides of his character; a tendency his son also possesses although for entirely different reasons. Nevertheless, both Kingscourt's end condemned by the Irish despite all the good they do or try to do. Pius Mulvey is at times an intelligent and likeable hero, at times a rogue, at times a victim and at times an appalling monster. The surgeon is at the outset portrayed as incompetent but later is seen to be extremely competent. Kingscourt's wife Laura can be an adulterous bitch but becomes, almost overnight and with little explanation, a saint. Of the principal characters only the suffering Mary Duane maintains her purity and her sweetness despite her appalling ordeals: I was reminded of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. Having multiple dimension characters is great but sometimes their inconsistencies made suspension of disbelief even harder.
My final niggle is a moral point. I think that the novelist is trying to tell us that the poor, the weak, the unnoticed majority suffer at the hands of the few. But he does this with a cast of four principal players. The steerage passengers are, by and large, reduced to the roll-call of deaths in the captain's daily logs. We are far more concerned with the life of the Earl of Carna than that of Eileen Bulger who was committed to the deep on the 22nd day of the voyage.
Flawed but a good book, a good read. November 2013; 405 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57