Dublin, August 1914: Katie Crilly comes home to find a strange man on the landing of her home. Her twin brother Liam, in ill-fitting khaki and a “daft looking cap” stands there, declaring without words that he has joined the British army to fight in a war no one fully understands. Katie’s initial shock of strangeness inserts a wedge into the once tiny gap between the siblings, and it is clear things will never be the same again. Just eight months later, the Crilly’s receive news that Liam has been killed on the Western Front.
Katie is still trying to find her way in a restrictive society, but now she is also dealing with the fallout from her family’s bereavement and increasingly conflicted emotions and loyalties while accidentally at the epicentre of the Easter Rising.
It’s easy to see why Lia Mills’ Fallen was chosen as the One City One Book selection for the centenary of the Rising. It is a handy potted history of the events of the Rising not from the point of view of any lead protagonist, but from that of an ‘ordinary person’ if there is such a thing. This gives us a fresh eye on what have become dead facts through retelling. The terror and confusion of the teenage soldiers from the Sherwood Foresters charging Mount Street Bridge into rebel fire; the grotesque sight of looters drinking whiskey on a dead horse in O’Connell Street; the refugees of destroyed tenements fleeing with even less than the pitiful little they had before are all captured. The hidden impacts of the fighting on the poor of the city is frequently brought home in skilful asides – “My shoes bit down on broken glass. Pity the barefoot children now”. Her characters only relate what they can see and hear, and so we get everyday impressions rather than a military historical overview.
That said Katie is a little too conveniently in the right place at the right time to see and hear key events e.g. she just happens to be at the Shelbourne Hotel just after a man is shot for trying to reclaim his cart from the barricades. She is constantly moving between the main hotspots of fighting with remarkable ease and it did stretch credibility at times as a result. There are a few moments when the conversation makes too obvious we are being taught something learned about the setting (“Why do you wear a watch on your wrist?”… “In the trenches they make more sense on your wrist than buried in your pocket. I think they’ll catch on”). Yes I might always over focus on the portrayal of animals in books, but a world with little or no mention of dogs, cats or even mice it seemed incongruous to have such focus on a pet monkey. I didn’t buy the relationship with Hubie at all, and most importantly – I never fully warmed to Katie. I found myself frequently wishing we were seeing through the eyes of Liam’s former fiancée Isobel, a far more interesting character, instead.
There are nice plays throughout on the different ways and means of being ‘fallen’, and an era of the euphemistic ‘known to Gardaí’ it’s interesting how Katie too is galled by euphemism:
…fell. I’d come to loathe that word; the newspapers were full of it. It masked the truth, that men were shot to pieces every day, for no good reason that I could see…that sly little word, fell.
I enjoyed Mills imagery, and there are flashes of insight here that make it well worth reading, but it’s no Strumpet City.