Review of The Fisher Child by Dermot Bolger
Vivid unravelling of history’s warped thread
Sunday November 25th 2001
Philip Casey’s latest novel is a sparkling blend of historical drama with cinematic edge, writes Dermot Bolger
The Fisher Child
Picador £14.99 hardback
(*this review refers to the Picador first hardback edition. It is now re-issued in a new edition from eMaker Editions).
HISTORIANS wanting to see Wexford’s history imaginatively brought to life have much to celebrate this autumn. Firstly there’s Barbara Toibin’s fine debut The Rising (set in Enniscorthy in 1916) and now Philip Casey’s far more complex and ambitious novel, The Fisher Child, which ranges in time and location from present day Italy, London and Wexford to the bloody conflict of 1798 in Wexford and the slave plantations of Montserrat at the start of the nineteenth century.
Indeed it could be argued that if Casey had been less ambitious and simply written an historical novel of the calibre of the middle historical section of The Fisher Child he would now be a very rich man from film and foreign rights sales. Because the world he conveys of Vinegar Hill, Carnew and Monaseed with pikemen clashing with yoemen and the Ancient Briton cavalry is vivid and cinematic.
It becomes even more so through the story of Hugh Byrne, survivor of that rebellion in which all his family are killed, who flees as a sailor to Hamburg and then finds himself working out a long indenture as a white slave on Montserrat (an island where black slaves had risen against their Irish masters in an echo of 1798) before gaining his freedom and causing scandal, ostracisation and tragedy by taking a black slave as a wife.
Casey has framed these historical events within the more mundane contemporary world of Hugh Byrne’s descendants, whose lives are still touched by his actions in ways they cannot hope to comprehend. The Fisher Child is a sequel to Casey’s fine 1999 novel, The Water Star, which chronicled the lives of a Wexford father and son, Brendan and Hugh Byrne, labouring in the ruined post-war landscape of London (Casey himself was born to Irish parents in 1950, before being one of the few emigrants’ children fortunate enough to return and be raised in Wexford). The Water Star was a brilliant evocation of London: its diversity, wounds, prejudice and rebirth.
Central to it was Brendan and Hugh’s tense relationship as they worked in the vain hope of acquiring enough money to return to the Wexford mountain which their family had farmed for over two centuries. The young, awkward and innocent Brendan has now become a grandfather in The Fisher Child, having retired and finally returned to Wexford where he breaks free from the narrow horizons of navvy life to embrace technology, the internet and organic farming in a fresh lease of life.
The Fisher Child concerns his son, Dan (named after his grandfather, Brendan), born, bred and buttered in London and yet still with that Byrne trait of longing to return to that mountain at the first sign of emotional trauma. And trauma there certainly is when the dull but treasured routine of his life as a happily married family man is shattered as his wife, Kate, gives birth to their third child who to their shock and confusion turns out to be black. Love turns to antagonism, silence and suspicion as Dan flees to Wexford to try and reconcile what has happened.
The Fisher Child has a triptych structure rather like the recent Seeds of Doubt by James Ryan. But, whereas Ryan’s middle section played with magic realism to construct the missing family secret, Casey’s middle section is highly factual and so powerful that at first it slightly dulls the more ordinary (though equally well rounded) present day characters. Its linkage to The Water Star is highly interesting (even if occasionally there is a lot of having to explain details of personal histories). The only comparison I can think of is the films The Godfather and Godfather II, which managed to function as both a sequel and a pre-sequel to the original a difficult imaginative feat which Casey more than successfully pulls off.
In doing so he has created a complex novel of contrasts and parallels within the emotions, prejudices and self-awareness of two males linked by a name and a secret and the irresistible pull of a Wexford mountain calling them home. The Fisher Child is a stand-alone novel that can exist without reference to any other book. But read along with The Water Star is to have a rare treat in store.
Dermot Bolger’s new novel, The Valparaiso Voyage, is published by Flamingo.
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