Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 410 pages; 2003.
This is quite simply a stunning achievement.
Joseph O’Connor‘s Star of the Sea is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but of the naval-based novel and, indeed, the novel in general.
O’Connor’s tome is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, each one marking a different place on the social spectrum: the cunning criminal; the downtrodden maid looking to start a new life; an American journalist who records it all; and a victimised landlord and his unhappy wife. The beauty of O’Connor’s magnificent novel is that each of these vastly different characters is inextricably linked in ways that they will never know.
Star of the Sea is a mesmerising tale that will take readers to new, uncharted territory. It is sad, funny, violent, depressing, grim, shameful, shocking and uplifting. O’Connor, the brother of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, weaves a wonderful, clever narrative together, swinging effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. But it’s the ending which will leave you gasping for more as you suddenly comprehend how all the different strands of the story have come together without you ever realising.