Star of the Sea – Joseph O’Connor
Now for some historical fiction. Star of the Sea is set in 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland; the ship ‘Star of the Sea’ is on a twenty-five day journey from Liverpool to New York, carrying hundreds of Irish immigrants and other steerage, and fifteen considerably more comfortable first class passengers. We follow the activities of a few of these passengers – bankrupt landowner Lord Merridith; his children’s nanny Mary Duane; journalist Grantley Dixon; and criminal Pius Mulvey, who has placed onboard the Star with a special mission in mind – and through long flashbacks, examine how the situation in Ireland (and other things) has gotten them where they are.
The telling of the story itself is a bit inconsistent; some of it is supposed to be Dixon re-telling it in a book years afterwards, but this doesn’t come through too often – generally it’s just normal third-person prose with no indication of a narrator except for the chapter titles. This doesn’t detract from the quality of the narrative, however – and neither do the flashbacks about the main characters, even though they tend to go on for a while once they get going. The backstories of Merridith, Mary and Mulvey are well constructed in how they link together; sometimes a piece of one character’s story will come up in another character’s flashback, and while you half expect a different flashback to further explain that, O’Connor is good enough to realise that it’s not necessary. With all the details of the past that get revealed bit by bit, it’s definitely intriguing and keeps you reading.
The prose itself is the best thing about the story – the amount of detail really makes you believe the era that it’s set in, as does the dialogue. It’s all very well researched, right down to the slang and how the papers and magazines of the day would react to certain characters. O’Connor paints rich and unsettling pictures not only of life onboard the Star (particularly for the steerage – comfort and health at sea comes a long way between 1847 and the Titanic 65 years later), but of just how bad things were in Ireland at that time.
Although Dixon is allegedly relating the story, he’s not quite as fleshed out as Merridith, Mary and Mulvey – but then, it’s really more their story than his. They’re all complex and all tragic in their own way. There’s no angels in this group, but you can understand just how the place and time they were born in has made them who they are. Even Mulvey, who has done some pretty vile things in his time, doesn’t feel like a complete villain.
As far as criticism goes, I only have a couple of things to nitpick, like how some things that seemed particularly significant in characters’ lives – e.g. how Mulvey’s foot was injured – didn’t get as much detail as everything else for some reason. Also, the final twist at the end didn’t seem entirely believable, but maybe that’s just me.
Star of the Sea is a great piece of historical fiction – compelling, rich in detail, and it makes you think how lucky you are to have been born in this day and age. Rating: 4.5/5.