Lovers' Hollow by Orna Ross

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Lovers' Hollow by Orna Ross

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An epic story of two families on the opposite side of the political divide in the Irish Civil War of the nineteen-twenties takes you right through to the nineteen-nineties and will have you glued to the page. It's highly recommended here at Bookbag Towers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 688 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Penguin Ireland
ISBN: 1844880516

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Jo Devereux returns to Ireland for her mother's funeral with some trepidation as she left home without telling the family where she was going some twenty years before and hasn't been back since. One of her mother's dying wishes was that Jo should write the family history using a suitcase full of family papers as research material. Pregnant as the result of a one-night stand, Jo decides to stay on in Ireland rather than return to her home in San Francisco. The story is not just about what Jo discovers of her family history, but what she finds out about herself and those closest to her.

I did wonder if I was going to like this book. The cover and the title suggest that it might be chick-lit and we're not far into the book before I suspected that we were going to be dealing with a heroine who likes drinking too much and indulging in one-night stands. It didn't take me long to change my mind though, and I read all 688 pages over a period of about three days - and this is a big, big story. It's Orna Ross's first novel, but it's crafted with the skill of a veteran and the suspense is masterly. Jo Devereux is a strong, feisty heroine who will stay in my mind for a long time.

The papers in the suitcase take Jo back to 1923. The Easter uprising is still fresh in people's minds and Ireland is on the brink of civil war between those who want to accept the terms offered to them for a free state by the English government and those who want an Irish republic. The main setting - Mucknamore - is a fictional village set in County Wexford, but the surrounding countryside and the events which took place there reflect historical fact. It's a detailed recounting of the division of society which took place not because of religion but because some people had the stomach to continue the fight for an Irish republic and some did not. Families, friendships were divided and were still divided by the end of the story, more than seventy years later.

This is history, but it's delivered in a user-friendly way and I couldn't put it down. The plot neatly weaves together the story of the Devereux family for four generations - five towards the end - with the history of Ireland and this is a complex story. There are numerous plots and sub-plots, but not one is superfluous and they all build together to a satisfying and completely believable conclusion. There wasn't a single loose end left untied but there was nothing that felt contrived.

Of course the book couldn't do this, no matter how good the story, if the characters didn't convince. The book isn't autobiographical although Orna Ross has drawn on her own experiences to produce the heroine of the book. Like Jo Devereux she was brought up in a pub, went to Loreto Convent and University College Dublin and was an aerobics instructor. Apart from the fact that her great-Uncle was shot in the Irish civil war that's where the similarities with the book end.

Before she left Ireland in her late teens Jo had loved - and lost - Rory O'Donovan whom she meets again when she returns to Mucknamore. Rory is a compelling, charismatic character, but ultimately weak and he's beautifully portrayed. It's not just the main characters that have this care and attention. There are minor characters, such as Jo's friend Richard, whose death was still fresh in her mind as she went to her mother's funeral. The details of his death are stark, but handled sensitively and Richard is a vivid character.

There is, of course, a whole cast of characters from the time of the civil war and these are given the same care and attention. Jo's grandmother, Peg Parle, in love with Dan O'Donovan, a ruthless Free-Stater, but still prepared to murder for the Republican cause that she holds dear, compels and repels in equal measure. She sets in train the events which are to cast a long shadow over the rest of the century. Once again, even the minor characters around her are memorable and believable.

Not surprisingly, given that Orna Ross lives in Wexford, there's a real ear for local dialogue and an ability to write dialogue without it sounding in any way stilted. She could make me laugh and cry, all within a few sentences.

When I saw this book I thought that the obvious comparison would be with Maeve Binchy, but I don't think that does this book justice. This book is epic in its scope and tackles difficult issues with skill and sensitivity. There are few works of fiction which leave you not only wiser about events in history but also about the issues behind the events.

If you'd like to read the first chapter of the book, click here and follow the link to Lovers' Hollow where you'll find a link to download a file. I hope it tempts you to buy the book.

The book was kindly forwarded to Bookbag by the publishers.

Booklists.jpg Lovers' Hollow by Orna Ross is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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Magda said:

I would NEVER consider this book based on the cover. But taking into account the fact that I am a closet Rosamund Pilcher addict (OK, it's out now, Jill don't guffaw please) maybe this one is not a bad idea.

Sue replied:

My immediate reaction was to compare with Maeve Binchy, but Rosamund Pilcher would not be a bad comparison either. I'd say Orna Ross has the same story-telling ability, but there's a lot more depth to the writing.

nuala 62 said:

I thourghly enjoyed the book.It was very well written and the story line was so interesting .It is going around my women friends who are involded in book clubs.I look forward to the next one.

aoifeminihane5 said:

Absolutely brilliant. My mother was in jail in 1923 with all the other well known republican women and they suffered so much. I can readily identify with the plot of this book and the bitterness that still exists in some families. Orna Ross has brought to life an inner depth of the human cost of the Civil War that has been swept aside for too long and will captivate young and older readers alike. Thank you Orna, We are indebted to you forever.....Aoife

Patricia Laurenson said:

I too had the feeling that this might be chick lit but how wrong could you be? I think the publisher did the book a disservice with the title, the cover and the blurb - this is a wonderful multilayered historical novel with well-rounded characters and a plot that keeps you guessing to the end.

It gave me shivers thinking with a few changes of name and location it could be set in Iraq today - I think Ross's best strength is how she shows the origins of bitterness that flows through the generations. I'd put it on a parallel with The Corrections in terms of the complex layering.

Patricia Laurenson New Zealand