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At Swim, Two Boys    by Jamie O'Neill order for
At Swim, Two Boys
by Jamie O'Neill
Order:  USA  Can
Scribner, 2003 (2002)
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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

It is 1915 in Dublin, Ireland - the year before the uprising, the infamous Easter Rebellion. Two young boys from different sides of the street, Jim and Doyler, make a pact to swim in a year's time to Muglins Rock to claim that island off Ireland's east coast for themselves - on Easter Sunday, 1916. An Englishman with Irish roots comes to his late grandfather's home to start a new life after spending time in goal in England for sodomy. He speaks frequently to his friend Scortes, who (though he died in prison) answers him.

War rages in Europe and England is recruiting in Ireland for soldiers to fight and die for the King, while many in Ireland prefer to fight the English to bring about a freedom of their own. As Scortes says, 'The struggle for Irish Ireland is ... for the heart, for its claim to stand in the light and cast a shadow its own in the sun. So spake Scortes, and having spoke he smole a smile and home to raven regions lonely stole.'

The novel chronicles the days leading up to the rebellion and its impact on each one of the true-to-life characters - Jim, Doyler, MacMurragh and his aunt Evaline, Mr. Mack, Jim's father. This is an epic novel written in the tradition of the great Irish writers. O'Neill is a learned man and he shares that learning with his readers. His vocabulary had me racing to the dictionary, until I realized my action was stopping the flow of the glorious words he used. The author has a way with the turn of a phrase, so that it seems as though he is translating from the Gaelic, using the gentle cadence of Irish speech.

O'Neill handles the subject of homosexuality with candor, having Jim awaken to the reality of his yearnings. While a few scenes may be too explicit for some readers, they are written with grace and do not offend. At Swim, Two Boys is ponderous at times and will not be skimmed. It is a story worth telling and for that worth the reading. O'Neill reawakened in me the love I have for Ireland - for the beauty of the country, for the softness of its climate, for the welcoming of its people, and a sadness for its troubles, that persist to this day.

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