Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan review – friendship, memory and human capacity for endurance
An uneven debut set between ’90s Ireland, California and Eastern Europe tries to cram in too much
Where Sheehan comes into his own as a writer is the descriptions of a war-torn Sarajevo
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Billed as “a tragedy, a comedy and a road trip novel”, perhaps even the publishers of Dan Sheehan’s debut Restless Souls know there’s too much going on in one book for it all to work cohesively. Sheehan, an Irish journalist and editor who lives in New York, writes with verve and feeling about the aftermath of trauma. His debut centres on the stories of a group of young men from Dublin in the ’90s that see them travel to Sarajevo, to California, and to hell and back.
Two interlinked narratives explore themes of friendship, memory and the human capacity for endurance. Karl, the book’s voluble narrator, has arranged a trip to California for himself and his mates Tom and Baz. This is no J1 holiday, however, but an attempt to rescue a friend from his demons. Tom’s journalistic endeavours in the Balkans war have led him to witness first-hand the casualties, fall in love with a brave local doctor and return home with PTSD five years later.
Following a failed attempt at treatment in a British clinic, Karl has applied on Tom’s behalf to an alternative rehabilitation centre in California, the titular Restless Souls, whose mantra “where the wounded come to heal” gives way in the book’s closing chapters to an interesting exploration of PTSD and the limits of modern medical science. Interspersed with the trio’s journey to California, which ticks off a stay with Burning Man-esque desert dwellers, the hairpin bends of the Pacific Coast Highway and the media mogul William Hearst’s famous tourist attraction castle, is Tom’s own story from Sarajevo.
In early chapters, Karl and Tom’s voices – both first person, mixing past and present tenses in a way that jars – blur together. Although the backdrops are different, they speak and think in similar patterns. As the novel progresses, distinct voices do emerge, but this is more a factor of circumstance than style. Where Sheehan, who is married to the author Tea Obreht, comes into his own as a writer is the descriptions of a war-torn Sarajevo: “Five that I could see were missing limbs. Tiny stumps, blood seeping through the bandages and gauze. One boy in a slashed blue Italian football jersey was being held down by two knackered orderlies. His left leg was burnt black, flesh and fabric melted together.”
The characterisation of peripheral characters is also skilfully done: the layabout Baz, whose incessant bickering with Karl gives lightness to the novel’s dark subject matter; the kindness of Karl’s foster parents Eugene and Therese; and in particular the bolshie female heroine Jelena, a Bosnian doctor who sacrifices her own safety for the lives of others. Her voice captivates the reader, and Tom, from the beginning: “I am not here to babysit reporters or put on a show for ghouls. You come, you help or you fuck off.”
In terms of tone, there are similarities with Restless Souls and Ronan Ryan’s 2017 debut The Fractured Lives of Jimmy Dice, with both novels examining tragedy through inventive narratives told by likeable if long-winded narrators.
The problem with Restless Souls is a subplot that easily could have made a novel in its own right. A fourth friend, the vividly rendered Gabriel, has killed himself some years before the trip to California and Sheehan’s attempts to link this tragedy to Tom’s Sarajevo experiences feel strained. The impetus is heavily flagged – they failed to save one friend so they must save the other – but Gabriel and Karl’s history as foster brothers feels dropped into the novel at inopportune times. A sequence towards the end that splices the day of the suicide with Tom’s therapy efforts in California only reinforces this issue.
The busyness is most apparent in the opening chapters of the novel which mix scenes of the boys arriving at Dublin airport, passages in Sarajevo and references to Gabriel, before jumping back to the night before they go to the airport when they stay with Tom’s God-fearing mother, a nod to an older Ireland.
There is a lack of care in certain descriptions – “We were the worst type of clucking hens”, “I made my face a mask of solemnity” – that elsewhere gives way to a verbosity that doesn’t feel in keeping with Karl’s character: “Her mother is slightly more diplomatic, but an elitist bitch to her marrow.” As a prelude to an anecdotal section on Irish college, he tells us: “As soon as we heard he was off to spend half the summer dancing and splashing around the Atlantic with two hundred gamey country girls, our collective interest in achieving proficiency in the native tongue suddenly shot up.”
“Don’t reach for epiphanies,” Karl tells his friend Baz towards the end of the book in a line that again seems out of character. There is the sense in Restless Souls that the author is also reaching at times, of a restlessness within his debut.