For one week while away this month I lived in Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, first published in 2001. My plunge into its world began with the cover image, and I dove into 1915 Dun Laoghaire and the telling of a story that began with words that cast a spell of language and narrative:
"At the corner of Adelaide Road, where the paving sparkled in the morning sun, Mr. Mack waited by the newspaper stand. A grand day it was, fair and fine. Puff-clouds sailed through a sky of blue. Fair-weather cumulus to give the correct designation, on account they cumulate, as Mr. Mack believed. High above the houses a seagull glided, gliding on a breeze that carried from the sea. Wait now, was it cumulate or accumulate he meant? The breeze sniffed of salt and tide. Make a donkey of yourself, inwardly he cautioned, using words you don't know their meaning. And where's this paper chappie after getting to?
In delicate clutch an Irish Times he held."
There's a lot here: a setting, a distinct character, and two distinctive voices, that of Mr. Mack and of the narrator. In time we meet Mr. Mack's teenage son, Jim, and another father-son pair integral to the plot, which interlocks romantic love, love of family, and love of country in a time of unrest.
Good fiction creates a world in which the reader lives for a spell. And a spell, an enchantment it is, one that deepens our knowledge of the world and the human heart and adds vicariously to our experience. In this book I have felt as a boy in the confessional, confessing he knows not what but that he is wicked. I've felt the mixed and unarticulated emotions of that boy as he prays on his knees beside a priest whose psychological power over vulnerable boys is almost unlimited. I feel the pride that enables another teenage boy to shovel dung and still dream and love the world. I enjoy the all male swims in the sea, and the boys' determination to swim out to the Muglins the next Easter. I've lived through the planning of an uprising among Irish citizens who are faced with involvement in a great war at the same time they want to wrest their independence from British rule.
A great writer puts us into the lives of other people while still allowing us the perspective of the writer/reader. In the dual vision we create meaning.
I emerged from this book, at p. 562, wanting to go back and start over. I know I'll go back.
For dessert there's O'Neill's website with links to a number of early reviews and a few pictures. The story of O'Neill's ten year process of writing the book is in itself a great struggling-young-writer story. The title was inspired by that of Flann O'Brien's At Swim--Two Birds. The American publisher of O'Neill's novel wanted to call it just At Swim (too vague, too dull). O'Neill added the comma, and literature was enriched once more. You can see very fine photographs of the bathing area at the Forty Foot at the website of the photographer Tom O'Doherty. You'll have to scroll down a few pages to the set of the baths at Dun Laoghaire.