The Bottom Line: A vivid, gut-wrenching and charming historical thriller that captures a man’s coming of age in early 19th century Ireland.
Set in the years surrounding the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the novel’s early chapters follow the plight of the Neal family as they attempt to survive an armed uprising against British rule and its subsequent backlash. Wartime is not kind to the Neal clan, and the story soon belongs to young orphan Kevin Neal, whose new life begins as a local priest arranges for him to live with another family.
Author Lawrence P. O’Brien has crafted a compelling coming of age story that plots Kevin’s journey from the age of seven through his formative years and adulthood. The book’s various battles and blood feuds add a more or less constant sense of danger. But the book also examines friendship. Its most tangible relationship comes from Kevin’s parallel coming-of-age arc with a girl named Anty, short for Anastasia. The two bond as childhood survivors in the book’s first scenes, and then continue to interact as they grow into adults with adult dreams and desires. When it comes to this pair, O’Brien isn’t afraid to let the narrative slip into sentimentality from time to time, and the story is better off because of it.
While the book’s action-packed plot would be more than enough to grip most readers, O’Brien’s attention to atmosphere and world-building sets the book apart from other Irish period pieces. From the get-go, O’Brien juggles a large cast of characters who may be divided in part over ideology, but share a palpable struggle for survival, love and spirituality. The latter is a driving force that helps make Clochán – an Irish stepping stone that symbolizes both a river crossing and the gateway to the next life – so memorable. Village priest Father Barrett warns the children that God is quite literally keeping score of how often they recite prayers. Meanwhile, there’s talk of “fairy men” in the woods who can speak with ravens. The presence of both religion and superstition fill the novel with an uncommon atmosphere that readers won’t soon forget.
Clochán is a prime example of a book that cannot be judged by its cover. Kevin Neal’s journey is well-worth taking.