Never Be At Peace
by M. J. Neary
“Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” -Patrick Pearse
M. J. Neary’s historical novel, Never Be At Peace, attempts to make history come alive to readers unfamiliar with the context of the Easter Rising/Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916, going through to the Second World War. Her portrayal of historical figures such as Maud Gonne, Helena Molony, and Bulmer Hobson draws the reader in. The tension in the political and personal lives of these people makes for suspenseful, compelling reading. This novel focuses primarily on Helena Molony and her relationship with Bulmer Hobson. Neary provides a persuasive explanation for why Molony made the choices she did, and offers a rich contextualization to help readers understand the societal restraints, controversies, and opportunities that may have influenced her. Neary also ably and delightfully portrays the tension between Yeats and Gonne. I loved how women were so involved in the fight for freedom, and how Neary was able to show that while also showing that the Fenians were just as patriarchal as the English. Neary addresses a lot of ambiguity, a lot of difficult, convoluted social situations in her novel, and in doing so shows how striving for freedom is rarely a clear or simple thing.
Some possible drawbacks: Neary dedicates her novel to “the three generations of brave Fenian men of the Neary clan,” so her storytelling is naturally biased. Appropriately biased, I would say, though, since the characters she portrays are ardent supporters of a free Ireland. While Neary seems to follow actual historical events faithfully– as far as I can tell, though I am no student of Irish history– I do worry that there is more imagination than history when it comes to portraying these important historical figures. On the other hand, this is historical fiction, and putting words in people’s mouths is part of the narrative duty for this genre. Finally, the writing was a little uneven, and the transitions from scene to scene were abrupt. However, I read an ARC, not a finished copy, so the unevenness may have been smoothed out in the final copy. Also, the jarring change from scene to scene, from one narrative perspective to another, may best convey the sensation of participating in these historical events.
Reservations aside, I enjoyed this novel. I fretted for Helena and Iseult, and longed for them to have the peace and freedom they longed for and deserved politically, and the love and security they needed so badly personally. I was fascinated by the push and pull amongst the freedom fighters themselves. Revolution makes strange bedfellows, and seeing their interactions was priceless. Next time you’re looking for something non-alcoholic to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with, or maybe around Easter in 2016, think about delving into Neary’s novel. It has certainly inspired me to learn more about these courageous people.
PS This review is part of Fireship Press’s Virtual Book Tour for this novel. Check out the tour schedule here to find what other reviewers are saying about this book and read interviews with the author.
PS 2: Here is an excerpt from the “About the Author” page at the back of the book. I’ve gotten a few questions about Neary herself, and thought maybe this would address those questions. It says, “A Chernobyl survivor adopted into the world of Anglo-Irish politics, Marina Julia Neary has dedicated her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Easter Rising in Dublin.”