"Set in Dublin, At Swim, Two Boys follows the year to Easter 1916, the time of Ireland's brave but fractured uprising against British rule. O'Neill tells the story of the love of two boys: Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of the foolish aspiring shopkeeper Mr. Mack, and Doyler, the dark, rough-diamond son of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Doyler might once have made a scholar like Jim, but his folks sent him to work, and now, schoolboy no more, he hauls the parish midden cart, with socialism and revolution and willful blasphemy stuffed under his cap." "And yet the future is rose, Jim's father is sure. His elder son is away fighting the Hun for God and the British Army, and he has such plans for Jim and their corner shop empire. But Mr. Mack cannot see that the landscape is changing, nor does he realize the depth of Jim's burgeoning friendship with Doyler. Out at the Forty Foot, the great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, Easter 1916, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The book's style is excellent. The historically probable world-views of the very different people that make up the world of "At Swim, Two Boys" are rendered faithfully and realistically without becoming overly psychologizing, as many modern novels are. The interaction between the characters and the general theme of the plot appears as an odd mixture of Thomas Mann and Charles Dickens, but in modern style (though using the language of the times, and paying great attention to it too!) and without the grandeur of either. O'Neill masterfully creates suspense with small changes in plot, making each individual character's actions appear as gripping and unpredictable, without the reader noticing that purely factually, not much happens.
The only downside to the book is its length (it could have been cut just a bit, especially at the start) and the first parts that are seen from the view of Anthony MacMurrough, a dandy returned from Britain to Ireland with a shady past. His character seems somewhat of a historical nod to Oscar Wilde, but his arrogant and rather overdone musings seem at first to be a break in style with the other characters and are rather uninteresting to read. Fortunately, he undergoes a series of events that change his view on things and in the end he is redeemed, making him all the more rewarding as a character.
To summarize, the book is a solid and exciting historical novel which will be especially appealing to (male) gay readers, but certainly guaranteed to interest anyone else as well. To leave the plot exciting (it is too easily betrayed), I haven't given any extra information on the background, and other reviewers before me have done this amply anyway.
The title is incidentally a reference to the famous novel "At Swim, Two Birds" by Flann O'Brien.
Everyone says this book is hard to get in to for the first 50 pages because of the street slang and that darn crazy Irish-Gaelic syntax, and if you're smart (unlike me), and if you don't know much about the Easter Uprising of 1916, you might want to google it just a bit before starting. This might be a good idea, as while you can figure out what's going about in their history well enough by keeping your eyes open, most people would probably be preoccupied enough figuring out how to get in to the rhythm of the prose. ^^
The darndable thing was, I UNDERSTOOD well enough by the first 50, but I was still getting the feeling I was missing a lot of the subtleties that are often what make writing awesome, and everything was losing a lot of the impact it should have had, just because I still felt an awful lot like I was reading a foreign language I had studied plenty but hadn't been around real natives speakers enough yet. But what I was understanding fully was still enjoyable, so I kept reading, feeling mildly to sometimes rather decidedly disgruntled.
...And then somewhere near the end of the book I looked back and said, "...Hey, I could have sworn a long time ago this was a little hard to understand or something. ...Huh. Oh well." *keeps reading even though she ought to have slept and be up in 3 hours*
As for the rest of it, I can't really praise its awesomeness any better than everyone else already has to death, so meh. Especially without making it sound like sentimental mush. Once I stopped having trouble with it, the writing was gorgeous. For another interesting note about my stupidity, this book is obviously going to end in tragedy. It's obvious from the plot description, it's obvious from comments you read about it, it's obvious from the review quotes riddled all over the book. I was fully aware of this when I started, and was rather annoyed as whenever I've got a book I know will end sadly, I can't help but every time something good happens in it go, 'Well, that's nice and all, but we all know none of this will matter in the end. *eye roll*' ...And then the fact just kind of sunk in to the back of my mind, never to surface again till (quite honestly) A FEW PARAGRAPHS before tragedy struck ^_^; Not even the awful situation rising, not even the portentous dialogue would break through my wonderful shelled brains.
Which is also to say, this book isn't surrounded by an unbearably, suffocating air of DOOOOOOM. It's rather happy, friendly, funny, and almost even kind of up-beat at times. ...Except for all The Sad in the end. So very sad. :( ...Even so, there's really no calling for forgetting this book ends with tragedy. I'm just really dumb like that. ...Not that I'm not happy I was able to enjoy the nicer parts of the book without being preoccupied with that ^_^ Go me!
And, on a random note, though I was sure I would hate McMurrough reading the summaries, and was annoyed when I found out he was supposed to be one of the three main characters, I just kind of felt sorry for him when I first read his parts. Anyway, I have now decided he will be my husband. Besides the whole fictional character from Ireland who lived during WWI, once imprisoned in England for being an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort, I think he will be just perfect. Lovely, lovely man
The two boys, Jim and Doyler were school friends before Doyler left school and moved away, and Doyler has a very soft spot for Jim. When Doyler returns and meets up again with Jim, still at school, he offers to teach him to swim out at the Forty Foot, a large rock where gentlemen bathe without the benefit of any costume. They make a pact that within the year they will swim to the distant Muglins Rock. At the same time Ireland is tied up in its troubles, with war raging in Europe and the rumblings of the battle for the countries independence, the two boys cannot remain unaffected.
But very much involved in the destiny of the two boys is Anthony MacMurrough, the nephew of a well to do Irish family, fresh out of a stint spent at his majesties pleasure in England for his illicit activities with another young man. Seemingly self centred and led by his inclinations, he strikes up a 'relationship' with Doyler, paying him for his services, and even trying to improve the young man, but Doyler is not to be one over, and even warns MacMurrough not to lay a finger on Jim. Yet in Doyler's absence MacMurrough watches over Jim, even makes sacrifices for him, and teaches his to swim.
Providing light relief to the proceedings is Jim's bumbling father, Mr Mack, the aspiring shopkeeper who somehow unfailing manages never to get it quite right.
At Swim Two Boys is a hauntingly beautiful story. It is told in turn from the perspective of the various main protagonists, and the style of writing changes accordingly. The relationship between the two boys is most touching; street wise Doyler longing for intimacy with the naive and innocent Jim, but unsure of Jim's inclinations. By contrast Doyler gives MacMurrough whatever he wants, and receives recompense in return. Yet through it all it is perhaps MacMurrough who grows the most, and his loyal attachment to Jim may be the making of him. A deep and most pleasurable read, highly recommended.
It was a little hard to understand at times, not because of the dialect ('tis very Irish, so it is--if you like the lilt of Frank McCourt's 'Tis you'll love this) but because of the author's style. Incomplete sentences. Thoughts unfinished. Many words on the page, one after the other, the way words normally occur, and yet—. Sometimes describing thoughts and at other times, the scene. Confusing.
The book takes place in 1915-1916, just before the Easter Rising that resulted in the independence of the Republic of Ireland, and it puts the reader into the middle of that conflict. This is good if you like history, which I do. If you didn't I think it might pull you away from the story, trying to figure out which side is which and how it all connects. I never did quite figure out which side a couple of the characters were on--or maybe that was the point. And, well, I didn't love the ending, but that's personal preference--it was very well done, it just wasn't the exact ending I would have chosen.
I picked up this story based on the description which basically indicated this is a coming of age type story of two boys (as I guess I have also, because this is the part of the book which touched me the most). However, there is much more to it. It is a story of politics and beliefs during wartime and of people trying to find a place for themselves and someone to care for them.
I found the book very hard to read, part of this is because I don't enjoy conflict and am not fond of war stories. However, it was the Irish dialect and slang itself that made the reading of the book so confusing to me, especially in the beginning. Not only were the characters words confusing, but the narrative and setting descriptions themselves were all written in this manner. It was hard work to get through, but certainly worth the effort. I came to care about the story and very much for the characters of Jim, Doyle, and especially MacMurrough. Despite his rocky and necessarily confused introduction into the tale, it was he I empathized with the most for his relationship with Jim and Doyle and for his own personal demons and tragedies.
Knowing for truth now what this book is I can honestly say had I understood what the book was about I would never have picked it up, but even still I cannot say at all that I regret having read it. It is one that will stay on my mind for some time to come, if not only for the sweet quote, "pal o' me heart" which will always remind me.
It isn't so much a dialect thing, I discovered, as a cadence to the words... a lovely dance that the writer twirls and spins across the floor. I found the book slow-going at first. Partially because it takes a few chapters to find the rhythm of the words, and partially because the tale focuses at first on Jim's father and Jim's gone-to-war brother. It doesn't take long for Doyler to enter the picture, though, and I found myself cursing when a "Mr. Mack" section of the book took the focus off Jim/Doyler. But I then found myself drawn so much into the story that all of the characters meant something. They were all real, all three-dimensional, all with foibles and joys and vanities and pleasures and I could identify with each of them. And -- this is kind of hard to explain -- with each chapter you could see the growth of the characters as they learned from each other. Everything weaved together seamlessly.
Mr. Mack, in particular, really spoke to me. In a world populated by those who pay lip-service to love, devotion, piety and honesty, it is Mr. Mack, outwardly so concerned with appearances and rising above his station, who proves to be a Good Man. It is his nature.
The ending gutted me.
(Reviewed October 2004)
“At Swim, Two Boys” was brilliant in providing a setting and mood of this period in Irish history, and the bittersweet aspect of love, obligation, and the helplessness one feels towards perceived inevitability. Though some readers laboured with portions of the dialect, since I’m quite used to hearing it from the above friend, it wasn’t a problem for me.
My conclusion towards it reflects some of my own feelings about my writing, which can contain difficult subjects. Just like in life, even when the most horrible and unthinkable happens, is one suppose to lament eternally in a way others think proper, or will you write it as you’ve experienced and/or observed? Whether a reader identifies with your way of writing your story, shouldn’t keep you from writing the way you see fit. I think Jamie O’Neill did that exceptionally well. An outstanding example of thought-provoking fiction, not just gay fiction.
Note: I was fortunate to have a first edition local printing, as some have remarked the changes made to later editions.
Originally posted at my review site Flying With Red Haircrow.
Nonetheless the book captured me as I'm sure it has other readers, for the passion of the characters and their language was truly inspiring.
Don't get me wrong, At Swim, Two Boys has some stunning lines that I could already imagine on a million tumblr edits. There was a lot of potential here and it hits a market that I think is highly lacking in literature (I'm talking historical queer romance). But...
Okay so first off, this is a hard book to read. The writing is, in many ways, very sophisticated and so it takes a while to get into the rhythm of it. It's stream-of-consciousness and flips between characters without hesitation. Plus, it's Irish and full of slang and such that I am entirely unfamiliar with. So the first 50 pages or so are rough, but then things start to get easier.
Second, I didn't care for, uhhhhhhhhh, about 50% of the story. I liked Doyler and Jim. I cared about Doyler and Jim. Everything else was background, and I found myself zoning out for page after page when it wasn't focused on them.
Third, okay, the romance was pretty good. It wasn't an idealized romance: it was rough and messy and felt very real and very era-appropriate. It was sweet and sad and fulfilling and I quite enjoyed that.
And fourth.... the ending was horrible.
H o r r i b l e.
It's the kind of ending you know is going to happen because you're not an idiot, but you're hoping the author has the guts to do something different, but he doesn't. He gives you exactly what you think he'll give you, and it's entirely unsatisfying. Yawn.
500 pages that should have been 200.
And that's that.
Excelente. Casi .
“Listen to me. When you’d touch me, I won’t be jumping, I won’t be startled, won’t hardly show if I felt it even.’
‘What about it?’
‘I’m just thinking that would be pleasant. To be reading, say, out of a book, and you to come up and touch me – my neck, say, or my knee – and I’d carry on reading, I might let a smile, no more, wouldn’t lose my place on the page. It would be pleasant to come to that. We’d come so close, do you see, that I wouldn’t be surprised out of myself every time you touched.’”