BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Lyrical Tale of the O’Malleys’ Lives, Loves : AWAY <i> by Jane Urquhart</i> ; Viking $21.95, 356 pages
Delicately spun from a blend of history and legend, “Away” is fiction of rare elegance and emotional power, reaching deeply into the collective memory of the Irish emigrants who left their home during the potato famine to settle in the New World.
For most, the decision to leave was hardly voluntary. The choice was between starvation on their blighted land, or emigration to the United States or Canada in the infamous coffin ships, so-called because death often claimed half of the passengers who made the miserable crossing.
The O’Malley family was barely more fortunate than others. Brian O’Malley was a schoolmaster, literate in English and Latin as well as Gaelic, and his tiny, illegal “hedge school” provided him with a minuscule income.
Unlike most of the absentee English landlords, the two eccentric brothers who virtually owned Rathlin Island could see the suffering of their tenants firsthand, and when their people were dying of hunger, they bought passage for many to Canada: Brian O’Malley; his wife, Mary, and their son, Liam, among them.
After a journey of unspeakable hardship, they were abandoned deep in a Canadian forest to fend for themselves. With the help of Irish pioneers who had preceded them, the O’Malleys survived, but “Away” is far more than just a story of triumph over adversity.
In 1842, a ship was wrecked and its cargo of cabbages, teapots and whiskey barrels swept onto the shore of Rathlin Island.
The young girl who would some day marry Brian O’Malley was the first person on the beach that morning, and it was Mary who discovered a young man flung over two of the whiskey barrels.
He “opened two sea-green eyes and spoke the name Moira before falling once again into semi-consciousness. . . . In the time it took the sun to travel from one cloud to the next, Mary had learned so much of him that she would have been able to scratch the details of his features on a rock or mold an exact replica of him from clay. She recognized, immediately, that he came from an otherworld island, assumed that he had emerged from the water to look for her, and knew that her name had changed, in an instant, from Mary to Moira.”
The young man lived for only a moment more, but that moment was long enough to alter Mary forever. In the language of Rathlin Island, she was “away,” possessed; her soul claimed by spirits who lived under the sea.
Mary would never again be entirely of this world, though she would marry the schoolmaster and bear a son in Ireland, and a daughter after immigrating to Canada. She would perform all the arduous duties of a pioneer woman, but one day she would be recalled by the spirit of the sailor who had died in her arms.
Mary vanished into the wilderness, never to see her husband or children again.
Mary’s daughter, Eileen, is lovingly raised by her brother, who prospers wonderfully in Canada, but there’s something “away” about Eileen as well.
She, too, falls in love--once and forever with the Canadian-Irish radical Aidan Lanighan, a disciple of patriot D’Arcy McGee. Eileen runs away from the grand home her brother, Liam, has created for her, finds the love of her life and briefly lives with him. Though she tries to understand Aidan Lanighan’s mission, he never confides in her, and she is duped by one of his enemies. Believing she’s acting according to her lover’s orders, she gives a gun to the man who assassinates D’Arcy McGee. Lanighan holds Eileen responsible, and overcome by guilt and remorse, she returns to her brother’s house, never to leave.
This intricate, lyrical novel is recalled piecemeal by Esther O’Malley Robertson. The language throughout is remarkable, the rhythms subtly suggesting the music of Gaelic; the prose gradually becoming more contemporary but maintaining a distinctive Irish inflection.
Esther, the elderly granddaughter of Mary, has inherited Liam’s enormous farm and devoted her life to its management. Now sand has drifted over the buildings, and the once-lush fields have become a gigantic gravel quarry. Esther O’Malley Robertson is “the last and the most subdued of the extreme women. She was told a story at twelve that calmed her down and put her in her place.”
It will do that and much more for everyone who reads it.