Ashes In The Wind by Christopher Bland

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Ashes In The Wind by Christopher Bland

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A tale of two lads swept to different sides of the Irish conflict and their lives, loves and families from the turn of the 20th century right through to the present day. The first half is better than the last but still a debut to be proud of.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781859339

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John Burke and Tomas Sullivan may go to the same primary school in Kerry but even in 1908 they're on two sides of a great divide. John is Anglo Irish protestant and comfortably off, being the heir to Derriquin Castle whereas Tomas is Irish Catholic, living in poverty and raised to feel the resentment of the oppressed. The fact that John has been brought up to believe in Home Rule tragically makes no difference as John, Tomas and their future generations live with the consequences of a centuries old struggle.

At first glance new author Christopher Bland may not seem that new (if he'll forgive me for saying so). He's been head of ITV, head of the BBC and a politician among other things in a long and distinguished career. But he'd reached his mid-70s without ever having written a novel. That's now been amended with this, Ashes in the Wind a bit of an opus encompassing years as well as miles.

From the first page he hauls us in via the engaging and compelling John and Tomas whom we meet when little scamps. Through their eyes we see the disparity in living standards as well as beliefs between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland at that time. It's a situation they've inherited rather than chosen, increasing our empathy with them and the realisation that it also affects their children and grandchildren.

Indeed the story doesn't stop with John and Tomas. We travel with them through the Irish struggle, the Spanish Civil War and the worlds of British and Irish horse racing (can't say it's not eclectic!) but the baton is eventually passed on. Their heirs then go on to take part in the conflict in Malaya and, more recently, have first-hand experience of politics and the fluctuations of the Irish economy. As good as these latter years are (especially if you have an interest in horses, hunting and racing) the highlight for me are the pre-World War II years in Ireland.

Christopher's nail-bitingly tense narrative holds us as we watch Tomas become radicalised by events in his community and his initiation into the IRA. (The IRA then being a different organisation to what it became in the 1960s and 70s.) Being English didn't prevent me from being sickened by the heinous treatment exacted by the occupying British auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. They may have been returning war heroes but their actions in Ireland were far from heroic, engendering an equally embittered response.

Christopher slips real characters beside the fictitious and so we meet the iconic 'Big Fellow' Michael Collins and the fascinating Major Emmet Dalton who fought on the side of the British before joining the IRA. Although conflict (both personal and international) ripple through the novel, these days are by far the most vivid and evocative.

Not only is the history interesting, Christopher employs a clever device. As we gallop through the years (no pun intended – we do seem to get through large spans of time almost indecently fast) to modern day, from time to time the children and grandchildren of our two initial characters find things that add new knowledge or hindsight twists to the past. Thus things we didn't know are revealed and things we thought we knew are altered slightly.

Once the Spanish Civil War is out the way, the novel loses some of its thrall and settles down into an average family drama which isn't bad, just a shame. Also, as we come into recent history, our current affairs knowledge acts as a spoiler in a couple of cases. (I won't elucidate in case you're not of a certain age and so it won't!)

I'm going to suggest that the nerve tingling excitement, sense of adventure and cracking sense of history that Christopher invests into that first section may indicate that's where his passion lies. If that era had been expanded to last the whole novel and related at a slightly slower pace, it would certainly have been a 5* novel, no argument. Therefore as I eagerly await his second book, I hope he realises that he's a talented author but especially so when he follows his heart (unless it's in horse racing – being selfish).

(Thank you, Head of Zeus, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you want to continue with the Irish history theme, we heartily recommend Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor, short stories by a superlative Irish novelist capturing moments, past and present. You might also appreciate The House of Slamming Doors by Mark Macauley.

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