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Review - At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill

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Reviewed by Jim Mack

At Swim, Two Boys is one of the rare instances of a gay-themed book going mainstream and receiving some high critical acclaim. Irish author Jamie O'Neill writes a tale of his own country and in doing so, weaves together historic fiction with a profound and moving gay love story. We live the years up to the Easter Rising of 1915 through the eyes of Jim Mack, a confused and shy teenager. Jim rediscovers a childhood friendship in Doyler, an outgoing boy who is struggling to help his impoverished family. Pangs of lust and admiration evolve while Doyler gives Jim swimming lessons in the ocean. But theirs is a relationship smothered by teenage confusion, misunderstandings and sour circumstance that they must both strive hard to break free from in order to

appreciate a consummated love.

In the mean time, Catholic Ireland is hurtling towards a bloody conflict with England - and despite popular Irish sentiment, the factions behind Ireland's split are ill-prepared, uncoordinated, undermanned and unequipped to fight a war of independence. Both boys become caught up in the conflict; Doyler through his involvement with the socialist faction and Jim through his youthful and naive fantasies of defending one's country: for honour and for loved ones.

Jamie O'Neill effectively mixes history and love story in this long and complex work. In a style sometimes compared to fellow Irishman James Joyce, O'Neill is challenging to read through the first few chapters. ?Here the heavy use of 1914 Irish slang (much of it invented by the Author) might easily discourage a halfhearted American reader; but it gives the characters a genuine dimension and therefore heightens the atmosphere and the intentions of the plot. At Swim is a tragedy, but perhaps a fictional tragedy fit to preamble the bloody and senseless violence that gripped Ireland until the turn of the millenium and still haunts the country today. Despite its length, At Swim is punctuated with breakthrough moments for Jim and Doyler, both individually and together. ?All of these ultimately make the story a joy to read and recommend.

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I just wanted to add in my praise for this remarkable book. Reading it definitely wasn't easy, but it was like (some) poetry -- you can't always put into concise sentences what the poet meant, but you do understand, somewhere inside. And the prose is beautiful.

"So spake Scrotes, and having spoke he smole a smile and home to raven regions lonely stole."

Sigh.

dcorvus

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