This novel has made it onto my rather slim list of favourite reads this year; it has certainly raised the bar of my expectations of historical fiction. The quality of writing, the rich soup of firmly believable characters all intertwined and seemingly doomed by their connections, the choice of narrative styles, the feeling of low tragedy told as high adventure, the ravaging journey which is somehow preferable to the shuffling starvation that has overwhelmed Ireland, the murder mystery told almost backwards, building a quite astonishing tension… I am firmly smitten with O’Connor’s style, which grants a rapport between the reader and the meanest, lowest character within the pages – whoever you might deem that person to be.
The Star of the Sea sets sail for America bearing its handful of first-class passengers and its steerage section crowded with destitute, starving Irish men and women; some bearing a murderous resentment for Lord Meredith, fleeing bankruptcy with his wife and their two sons, for his perceived role of evicting landlord. The family’s maid, Mary Duane sails with them, her cargo a personal history that embroils Meredith (no saint, but a strangely sympathetic sinner) with Pius Mulvey, a prison escapee who, despite his back-story of abhorrent misdeeds, is also more compelling to the reader than repellent; such is O’Connor’s gift for character. Also aboard is the book’s ‘author’, American journalist (and aspiring novelist), Grantley Dixon, lover of Laura Meredith, whose presence torments Lord Meredith equally for the man’s relentlessly touted social conscience, and relationship with the Earl’s wife.
Entwined with the unfolding drama, like another character, is the atmosphere of a famished Ireland and her people, and the conditions those lucky enough to be fleeing to a new life must survive or perish more miserably, perhaps, than if they had remained on shore, and the way the one tragedy colours the story, motives, and drama of the other is O’Connor’s primary accomplishment here.