Tuesday, October 23, 2012

International Fiction Book Club Meeting (October 17, 2012) - "Star of the Sea" by Joseph O'Connor



         It was a cold, blustery, rainy evening.  No, that’s not the beginning of a novel, just the weather report from the International Fiction Book Club meeting of October 17, 2012.  Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor took center stage.  Even though it was nasty outside, inside we had a pleasant conversation about a most horrible time in Irish history - the Great Famine.  The seeming “present” of the novel takes place on the ship, The Star of the Sea, a freighter that is carrying 5,000 lbs. of mercury for the Alabama Mining  Co. in 1847.  Also on board are hundreds of would-be emigrants fleeing eviction and ruin for the promise of a better life in America.  But the present tense is a misnomer.  As one member commented, this is a sort of meta-fiction with various narrators including an omniscient voice, the Captain’s log, various letters and passages from an unfinished novel by a character aboard the ship.  This character is Grantley Dixon, an American journalist who puts together all of these pieces of the puzzle that make up the final voyage of what becomes a “coffin” ship.  He publishes this novel with the aid of an epilogue that clues in readers to the answers of some of the ship’s mysteries on Easter Sunday, 1916, when he is in his nineties.  So, we have a book within a book just as the ship’s passengers could be said to comprise a microcosm of the Irish cataclysm in the mid nineteenth century.

          Coffin ship, since many die on the voyage.  Puzzle, because as the ship moves closer to its destination we gradually find out more and more about the relationships that haunt the group of passengers to which we become familiar.  David Meredith has been disinherited twice by his father, Lord Meredith, even though the estate has been sold to sheep herders.  David’s position in the House of Lords is no help in this matter and as we discover more about this man we see the embodiment of hypocrisy.  Perhaps he represents English guilt.  Only when he finds out he has six months to live does he attempt to help the sickly.  His first love, Mary Duane, is now his maid and unaware of their true familial bond.  Pius Mulvey, referred to as the “ghost”, because of his habitual lurking about the deck, is the central character that ties together the disintegrating threads of both Irish families and society in general.  He can be said to embody evil but he also absorbs evil.  We know early on that a murder is about to take place.  O’Connor deftly fuses Dickensian style intrigue with parodies of both the Romance novel and Gothic suspense while adhering to the principle espoused by David Meredith, “Everything is in the way the material is composed.”  History of the subject matter is gained through osmosis when the characters are delineated through their passions and fears.   Everyone agreed that the form of this novel fit the subject matter and the epilogue only added to the nineteenth century feel.  Thumbs up unanimously.

         Our next meeting will be November 21st when we will be discussing 13 rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro.  Check out a copy at the front desk and come  join us.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk