Marina J. Neary, Big Hero of a Small Country
reviewed by Alison McBain
Big Hero of a Small Country
Publisher: Crossroad Press
Date: October 21-22, 2016
E-book: 162 pages
BN ID: 2940156960903
I’ve been on a history kick recently, and I was happy to delve into M.J. Neary’s Big Hero of a Small Country. It is an epic novel with characters who have deep, pathological flaws, and the reader alternately cheers for the family within its pages and also despises them. It captured my attention almost from the first paragraph, and was impossible to put down.
My mother-in-law’s background is Irish, and she recently went back to the home country to research her family’s history. So the opening of the book struck a personal chord, since it is a man who returns to rural Ireland to try to find out what happened to his long-lost grandfather, Brendan Malone.
The character goes by the nickname Bren, since he was named after his grandfather. In his search, he’s having a hard time finding out any information about his grandfather, and he writes to his friend Mick back home complaining about his difficulties.
The story is told in a combination of these “current” letters from 1931 and flashbacks to the pivotal year of 1910 when Brendan Malone disappeared. Flashbacks are hard to do at all, let alone well, yet I feel that Ms. Neary handles them effortlessly.
I like the contrast in style between the letters and the main narrative. The letters aren’t too long or too frequent, which would interrupt the story, but they set up the mystery of Malone’s disappearance and set an end goal for the reader. Will we, like Bren, have to follow the clues to find out what happened to his grandfather or, maybe more realistically, will we never know? Throughout the book, the reader is kept on the knife edge of this question.
The characters from 1910 include Malone, his wife, Máirín, and their two sons, Dylan and Hugh. Malone is very tempermental, extremely patriotic, and a mean drunk. Although his sons are now in their late teens and early twenties, he resents his marriage and has little fellow-feeling for his sons. In fact, he takes out his frustrations by beating his boys, which he has been doing since they were young.
Malone’s troubled home life isn’t the only story. He is very involved in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom, and a high-ranking officer in the rebellion against English possession of the country, the Fenian movement. He leads a number of men in the rebellion, and he extorts them to suffer greatly in the cause for their national freedom. And yet he feels that he is a great man born into the wrong time:
Without that respite he would have run off into the woods and started another uprising. Yes, he would have probably gotten captured and executed, like all great rebels who had endeavoured to cast off the British yoke in the past, but at least he would have died a hero. Anything would be better than just decomposing slowly, to the melancholic bleating of the sheep, the ranting of the vexatious wife and the hoarse sighs of the shepherd flute. (Chapter 1)
There is a great deal of historical detail effortlessly incorporated into the narrative. I felt I was immersed in the time period, and going right along with the ups and downs in the lives of the characters. The dialogue was realistic and, at times, reflected the unapologetically misogynistic beliefs of the time. And yet I felt there was a subtle tongue-in-cheek modern humor written into a lot of the outmoded beliefs of the characters that had me chuckling as I read. I enjoyed a particular rant of Malone’s friend, Aleck, when the two were commiserating about having unruly wives:
“Women are naturally apolitical. Have you ever seen one at the Parliament? If she cannot vote, what difference does it make what she believes in? Your task is to put a harness on her and keep her busy. Her job is to roll cigarettes and sell them at a decent price. Women have gotten awfully clever in the past few years. They trade, they paint, and God knows what else they do. Let your missus teach, or pull teeth, or paint clay pots to her heart’s content. The revolution, if it ever happens, will do so without women’s involvement. So let it go, old chap.” (Chapter 2)
Likewise, the author plays with the concept of the English-Irish rivalry. Whereas the father sees it as a life or death struggle, his wife is sympathetic to the English and his sons even more so. When Hugh meets a beautiful English girl, the national issue is not quite so severe as if it had been his father facing an Englishwoman, but rather a point to start a flirtation.
“Your father was right,” he [Hugh] said, having regained his ability to speak. “You have no heart.”
“What can be done?” the beauty sighed and inclined her elegant head, making the flame from the candle dance inside her opal earring. “It’s a national trait. And you don’t have a drop of common sense.”
“It’s also a national trait.” (Chapter 4)
Despite the realistic touches of humor sprinkled throughout, there are a number of deeper issues and motifs at work in the book. Ms. Neary doesn’t hesitate to expose the darker issues of extramarital affairs, child abuse, rape and murder. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
But it is a story beautifully written, with many descriptive passages that have echoes of poetry. In fact, poetry and song are entwined with and within the narrative of the book. The characters celebrate music and words as much as the author does, and the musicality of their passions is reflected in the tone of the description and way the characters live their lives.
When I came to the conclusion of the story, I wanted to continue reading, although the ending was satisfying when put in context with the characters. There was only one small part that seemed to me a little too convenient in terms of the plot, and I felt it over-accentuated the hardships the Malone family had faced.
But otherwise, the story was completely convincing to me. When I closed the book, I still wanted to read more, and I feel that is always the mark of a well-written book. I have two more of Ms. Neary’s novels on my shelf, and I look forward to reading them also.
Copyright © 2017 by Alison McBain