Saturday, March 19, 2011

J.S. Dunn's "Bending the Boyne": Book Review

This retells and expands the coming of those who engendered their own myths about ancient Ireland, and those whom they met. The Invaders here turn antagonists, unlike their counterparts in Celtic origin myths. Dunn shows us from the view of the Starwatchers, those already settled in the island, what this first of many incursions means for the oldest settlers. The figures of Boann, Aengus, Daghda, and Elcmar appear in legend, and many more whom Dunn introduces, embellishes, and imagines as full of longings, doubts, and concerns as you and me. Contexts about Atlantic Bronze Age trade, the dispersion of peoples, astronomy and traditions, and mercantile connections with Iberia and Britain, as sailing patterns are all integrated, smoothly and intelligently, into the plot.

While the tale starts and finishes in the present, this framing device coheres around a story from prehistory, when the Bronze Age reached the far fringes of Europe. About a hundred pages in, the setup is in place for the cultural showdown, and the main characters enter, so the pace settles in and sustains itself as Cian becomes the protagonist and we learn the combination of bronze and astronomy that allows him to mingle these crafts deftly. Dunn incorporates her academic studies into the story, not an easy task. "Bending the Boyne" blends knowledge and relationships, love and friendships, adventure and discovery into a fluid, steady narrative.

Dunn also sneaks in allusions to current politics, music, the Troubles, "A Modest Proposal," the poems of Yeats, and other cultural imports and inventions from the Ireland we know today. The narrative gives us a quick glimpse of where we're at now before taking us back very far. Then, we find out as the novel unfolds how what we see in a Dublin museum now might have originated thousands of years ago, if only a few miles northwards in distance, perhaps.

The tone, for an historical novel thousands of years ago, remains consistent: fluent enough for us to relate to, but enriched by a subtle register attuned to an ancient attitude, apart from our casual vernacular and casual exchanges. Dunn's characters regard status, relationship, and intention seriously, as misreadings of these cues can lead to their own doom. Therefore, I liked the slightly elevated diction and the avoidance of anachronisms, as if a resonant tale translated into modern vernacular does not lose its classical, measured cadence. I felt even for the "heavies" such as Elcmar, and what happens to such as Enya and Muirgen brings supporting roles alive as well. I felt I made friends with Cliodhna. I wanted to learn more of the elusive Sreng, and I wondered about Bolg.

Such open-endedness as to some characters, even as we follow others to the end, works well to expand the limits of the narrative, as with the Brighid and Connor episodes. I got angered at the Invaders and felt sorry for the Starwatchers. Dunn conveys the plight of those trapped by those determined to stop the mounds and erect the circles and this captures the societal transitions well, as does the way the "beaker" folk spread their technology. The explanations, as with how the newly imported, fashionable pots stand on tables, enter lightly, especially for historical fiction. Dunn makes the refinements of metallurgy as intriguing as astronomical alignment, resulting in an enjoyable and poignant account about these pre-Celtic Starwatchers.(See for information & excerpt. Posted to Amazon US 3-15 & 4-21-11)


Bo said...

thanks for this---this will have to go in my book!

Tony Bailie said...

Thanks for flagging this one up John. I think a copy is on its way to me and looking forward to it. Reading Hugh Kearns's Newgrange - The Mystery of the Chequered Lights, which is a factual take but seems to be coming from a similar angle.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Here's Tony's later review of the same novel: Bending the Boyne.