Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor

01/01/03, The Times

One awaits the publication of yet another novel on the Irish Famine of the late 1840s with as much eagerness as the next outbreak of vCJD. The prolific and masterful storyteller Joseph O’Connor both confounds and confirms such fears with his fifth novel, Star of the Sea. Set in the winter of 1847, it tells the story of the eponymous ship making its way from Queenstown to New York, carrying starving Irish refugees in the steerage and an odd assortment in the first class deck, which includes an Irish aristocrat, David Merridith, his family, and journalist Grantley Dixon, a brash American socialist. The story that unfolds purports to have been written by Dixon, a factual record of his experiences of that unforgettable journey in the bitter cold, published under the title An American Abroad by Cautley Newby (the publisher of Wuthering Heights) in 1849.

It’s a thrilling tale: the bankrupt Lord Kingscourt, David Merridth, is travelling to America to make a new life; his wife, Laura, is having an affair with Dixon; Mary Duane, nanny to the Merridith children, is connected to her master in ways that ultimately turn out to be devastating; Pius Mulvey, small-time crook and murderer, has been forced with the task of killing Lord Merridith on board by a secret Connemara group who go by the name ‘Else-be-liables’. Meanwhile, the Irish emigrants are dying like flies in the hold, ravaged by disease and hunger. O’Connor teases out the connections that bind all these lives together, and lays bare the intertwining of the personal and the political, the individual and the national, with nothing less than incandescent passion.

O’Connor’s prose – operatic and relentless, but unfailingly gripping – keeps the story moving furiously, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a glorified cross between Titanic and Murder on the Orient Express. Perhaps O’Connor realized this himself and, in an attempt to pad out an unashamedly populist narrative, he intersperses the main story with cultural paratexts such as ballads, letters, diary entries, articles from newspapers and learned journals, illustrations, all contemporary and all impinging directly on Ireland, the Irish and perceived notions of Irishness. Such hyperventilating heterotextuality sits uneasily and makes transparent its function as an unnecessary legitimizing device for what is an oft-told tale.

And then there is the problem with the insistent framing of the narrative and its recessed polyphonies. In a deeply disingenuous final chapter, O’Connor comes over all postmodern, pulling out of the bag tired tricks of ventriloquism, narratorial personae, levels of fictionality, not to mention enough red herrings and twists to wrong-foot the reader to distraction. Don’t let this fool you: the bottle might be flash, the wine remains old.