A River in the Trees review: Gripping page-turner depicts hardships old and new
In Jacqueline O’Mahony's debut novel, common themes and qualities links protagonists living a century apart in
Jacqueline O’Mahony, author of ‘A River in the Trees’
A River in the Trees
Jacqueline O’Mahony’s gripping page-turner is written from the point of view of two Irish women, living exactly one hundred years apart.
Ellen the principal narrator has returned to buy the old family home in an unnamed area in southwest Ireland in 2019. Having left when she was 18 and now long settled in London, Ellen’s not quite sure what draws her back. Meanwhile back in the early 20th century, her great-aunt Hannah endures a Black and Tan raid on the same house.
Endurance is one of the qualities which link these two characters although that is not the word which springs to mind when we first meet Ellen. Obsessed with weight gain, drinking and eating her way from the airport to the local hotel, Ellen casts an unsparing eye on anyone she meets. Even the woman serving her cigarettes at a petrol station is scrutinised. “She had brushed the front, but not the back, thought Ellen, or back just wouldn’t sit right for her – it was a bad cut. She had huge, strong-looking flanks that strained against too-tight, cropped trousers. Ellen loathed cropped trousers . . .”
Yet Ellen does not spare herself either and much painful comedy comes from the grim observations of her own lack of control. Through her honesty, Ellen steadily gains our sympathy especially as a darker story emerges – one of several miscarriages, a stillborn birth and a failing marriage unable to withstand the fallout of grief.
O’Mahony is very good at surprises. Simon, her rich English husband, initially comes across as rather a stock character, an ex-public schoolboy with a “a false laugh, har har”. But in one of the best scenes in the novel, he is revealed to be a wily manipulator. To hurt Ellen, he is happy to play Ellen’s mother – who he dislikes – against Ellen. It’s cruel and funny too.
Ellen’s mother is a cold nervous woman who is not sure that she can do the three-hour-drive to meet Ellen until there is the mention of a good roast dinner at journey’s end. The fact that Ellen left Ireland is held against her but as the book progresses, it is easy to see why she did.
Belonging is a major theme: “It was perilous to leave your own place behind – she understood that, now. How much easier it was to stay under the skies that had made you, to stick to a predestined course, not to have to cleave yourself from the life you should have had.”
While Ellen is on her journey of self-reckoning, Hannah’s story is developing at a great pace. The atrocities and betrayals which happened on the farm during the Troubles is revealed in a series of violent, gripping chapters interspersed with some fine poetic passages which describe Hannah’s relationship with her horse Pangur.
Like Ellen’s mother, Hannah’s mother is also cold and weak and like Ellen, Hannah has a favoured sister. Ellen is not party to the scenes we witness as readers and her mother resists Ellen’s efforts to find out the nature of Hannah’s disgrace and why she disappeared.
Ellen’s mother’s fear is well described but I was disappointed that it didn’t open up into something deeper especially as I didn’t feel that the reunion with Ellen’s estranged sister felt like it had been truly earned.
There are, however, a lot of important characters to juggle here and O’Mahony’s pace never falters in a first novel which shows great potential. Her unflinching and brave examination of the lives of women is bracing – sad and funny.
The most affecting, developed and surprising story in the novel is that of Hannah’s changing relationship with her sister Eily, and how the toughness of their lives is instinctively felt by Ellen, when she follows the estate agent into the kitchen of the old house a century later:
“She thought of her Georgian townhouse in London and its soaring ceilings – it was a different world here, small and mean and dark. The people here would have had to walk around nearly bent over, only half able to see things, scrambling about, almost, looking down, always. It would have done something to their minds, surely, she thought, to never have been able to look up, to be forced to look down like that all the time . . . Such darkness they had had to fight against, she thought, a darkness put upon them.”
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest book of poems is Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet)