Review by Booklist Review
This powerful debut novel, which took Irishman O'Neill 10 years to write, has a truly exhilarating style as the author rhythmically bends language that is, at times, of his own making. It is the story of two boys--scholarly, reticent James and cocksure, poverty-stricken Doyle--and their tragic involvement in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Despite the novel's broad canvas--it tackles class, religion, and patriotism--at heart it is a deeply moving love story. James and Doyle strike up a friendship at Forty Foot, a local beach, and make plans to swim to Muglins Rock far out in Dublin Bay on Easter Sunday a year hence. As the two draw closer and eventually fall in love, they must contend with disapproval of their relationship from peers and from the church and the jealousy of upper-class Anthony MacMurrough, who has served time in jail for sexual misconduct. James plans to attend college on scholarship and become a schoolteacher, but Doyle, bitter over his own lost chances, is hell-bent on revolution. Over the many pages of his novel, O'Neill creates a stunningly vivid world ("a strange land of rainshine and sunpour") in a language all his own. (See the Read-alikes column, opposite page, for other examples of high Irish style.) Joanne Wilkinson
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review
Published last year in Great Britain, this novel has been compared to works by James Joyce (or Flann O'Brien, whose At Swim-Two-Birds the title plays on), but it has more in common with the film Chariots of Fire in its painterly depiction of male athleticism and relationships. The sheltered son of a pro-British shopkeeper, 16-year-old Jim develops a doting and eventually homosexual relationship with Doyler, a bright boy from an impoverished family, as the two train for an ambitious swim across Dublin Bay on Easter 1916, a date that happens to coincide with a planned Republican uprising. Both become entangled with McMurrough, scion of wealthy Irish gentry, who is back in Dublin following imprisonment in England for indecent behavior. Jim is too nave and Doyler too politically sophisticated for their years, while McMurrough is typecast as an Oscar Wilde figure. Still, these are rich characterizations, and together with the playfully rendered Irish dialect they outweigh the book's imperfections. O'Neill also offers gorgeous descriptions of the Dublin environs and remarkable details of the period. Recommended for most fiction collections. Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The hunger for liberation-political, emotional, and sexual-gnaws at the big heart of this young Irish writer's engrossing, often very moving debut. The title, of course, alludes to "Flann O'Brien's" subversive comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. But O'Neill's real influences appear to be James Joyce's Ulysses and James Plunkett's Strumpet City, a romantic-epic portrayal of Dublin beset by the Troubles. O'Neill focuses initially on Arthur Mack, a widowed Dublin shopkeeper and Boer War veteran whose stubborn loyalty to Britain conflicts with the swirling energies of incipient rebellion against "foreign" rule that capture his neighbors. If Mack is a dreamy, distracted Leopold Bloom, his 16-year-old son James, a model youth seemingly destined for the priesthood or a teaching career, is a kind of Stephen Dedalus-a passive, well-meaning boy whose life changes under the charismatic influence of his pal Doyler Doyle, a rebel with several causes who draws James into a plan to swim to a nearby island and plant a green flag (symbolizing Ireland's independence). The rapidly growing love the boys share is interrupted when Doyler is imprisoned for "sedition," then absorbed in his duties as a Volunteer soldier-and is consummated, with bitter irony, when the Dublin streets become a blood-soaked "nighttown." O'Neill's replete characterizations of the aforementioned are deepened by the complex relationships each forms with such other figures as Jim's stoical, quietly perceptive Aunt Sawney, aristocratic Irish nationalist Eveline MacMurrough, and the latter's adult nephew Anthony, a sardonic homosexual (formerly convicted of "indecency") whose imaginary "conversations" with his deceased cellmate explore both Anthony's reluctant involvement with the Volunteers and his conflicted (and, really, rather contrived) dealings with both Doyler and James. Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O'Neill's warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate: altogether, his first the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle.
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