At Swim, Two Boys
You may have read the hype. Irishman Jamie O'Neill was working as a London hospital porter when his 10-year labor of love, the 200,000-word manuscript of At Swim, Two Boys, written on a laptop during quiet patches at work, was suddenly snapped up for a hefty six-figure advance. For once, the book fully deserves the hype.
In the spring of 1915, Jim Mack and "the Doyler," two Dublin boys, make a pact to swim to an island in Dublin Bay the following Easter. By the time they do, Dublin has been consumed by the Easter Uprising, and the boys' friendship has blossomed into love--a love that will in time be overtaken by tragedy. O'Neill's prose, playing merrily with vocabulary, syntax, and idiom, has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but in his creation of comic characters (such as Jim's pathetic but irrepressible father) and in the sheer scale of his work, Charles Dickens springs to mind first. But Dickens never wrote a love story between young men as achingly beautiful as this.
In the character of Anthony MacMurrough, who is haunted by voices as he pursues his illegal and dangerous desire for Dublin boys, O'Neill has created a complex and fascinating center to his novel, rescuing the love story from mawkishness, and allowing a serious meditation on history, politics, and desire. For as Ireland seeks its own future free of British government, so Jim, Doyle, and MacMurrough look back to Sparta to find a way to live. As Dr Scrotes, one of MacMurrough's voices, commands: Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literature for words they can speak.
In this massive, enthralling, and brilliant debut, Jamie O'Neill has indeed done just that: provided a nation for what Walt Whitman calls, in O'Neill's epigraph, "the love of comrades." --Alan Stewart, Amazon.co.uk
This book is the "Wuthering Heights" of gay-themed fiction. Among the tragically sparse population of novels about same-sex relationships that aren't relegated to the Gay Fiction section but are allowed to rub shoulders with the rest of the mainstream and literary fiction, O'Neill's book stands as a monolith among lesser pretenders.
I won't lie to you, it's not the easiest read ever. The Irish patois is very thick and at first it's slow going, but within about twenty pages I had gotten the rhythm of O'Neill's dialect, and it started to make sense. More than that, it began to have a quality that drew me in, an element of storytelling that enriched the vividness of the working-class setting and served to beautifully illustrate the world in which these two boys lived.
The relationship itself isn't candy-coated. It's harsh and rough and passionate and often impossible. It's very real in a visceral, gut-twisting way that's sometimes uncomfortable. The story is deeply rooted in the politics and atmosphere of the time; it'd be worth your while to go Wikipedia the Easter Uprising so you have an idea of what was going on in Ireland at the time.
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