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A River in the Trees by Jacqueline O’ Mahony

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Article by Swirl and Thread ©.
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Two women. Two stories. One hundred years of secrets.

A River in the Trees is the debut novel from London-based, but Cork-born, writer Jacqueline O’ Mahony and was published by riverrun (an imprint of Quercus Books)

A dual time story, it is described as a novel ‘about families, secrets and the impossibility of coming home.’

Being a native Corkonian I was intrigued to read this book

A River in The Trees is set in a small town in West Cork. It’s 1919 and the Irish War of Independence is tearing families apart, as neighbours fight against neighbour, with alliances being established and enemies made. As tensions heighten, the violence increases and with the arrival of the Black and Tans, many fear for their lives. These group of soldiers were initially sent to Ireland to maintain the peace but, as history tells us, this was not the case. The countryside of Ireland became a hideout for those who fought for her independence. (A minor historical note…the Black and Tans came to Ireland in March 1920 and not 1919 as the book alludes to) As the body count rose, reprisals were instigated and the violence escalated to frightening levels on both sides. The local parishioners were at the brunt of the reprisals taken by the Black and Tans, with shootings and torturous actions becoming common place.

For Hannah O’ Donovan and her family, their home became a refuge for those seeking a safe place to lay low for a bit. After an attack left a group of British soldiers dead, brutally murdered by a small group of Irish Freedom Fighters, Hannah’s father is asked to shelter the men involved.

‘The lorry they blew up was carrying the general from the train station to the barracks..And by god, they say they blew it to heaven. There were bits of bodies everywhere. The birds will be eating the flesh off the trees in Skibbereen for days to come yet. The general himself was thrown clear of the lorry and O’ Riada finished him off with a shot to the head, close range..’

With the arrival that night of O’ Riada and his men, nineteen-year-old Hannah is taken aback by her feelings for this man. He is a man of violence, a rebel fighting for freedom, surviving off the goodwill of sympathisers, and living off his wits. This is not a man she should love. This is not a man she should have any affection for, but her heart says very differently.

Meanwhile we fast forward to 2019. Ellen is coming home. With her life in London falling down around her, Ellen is going through a very bad patch and is looking to her family’s past to help her move forward with her own future. It came to her attention that the ancestral family home in West Cork is up for sale and she is intent on visiting it, with the option of putting an offer in for it. Ellen has an estranged relationship with her own family having left home many years previously. This fracture in her family life has continued through to her married life, leaving Ellen saddened by the way her life has turned out. She feels overweight, tired and depressed, turning to alcohol for some comfort.

As Ellen views the house with the local estate agent, she is aware of a presence in the rooms. Something happened in this house and Ellen intends to find out. Ellen becomes a little obsessed with the history of her family and through her search for the truth, the reader is taken back to 1919 and to the story of Hannah O’ Donovan.

A River in the Trees, for me, was an interesting story as it brought the history of my own past to life. My grandparents, maternal and paternal, were from West Cork and I would have heard stories over the years, relating to these times. There are characters mentioned, whose names are familiar to me. There are references to the difficulties for many of surviving in Cork city, especially for folk who had to leave the land behind during these bad days, times I would have heard mention of. I do have to say that I probably did read this book with quite a critical eye, so there were, for me, a few questionable areas, but to be fair I don’t think most readers would spot these.

I really really enjoyed Hannah’s story. Jacqueline O’ Mahony handled it very well and I really wanted to know more about what happened to her. Her character felt very real. Ellen, admittedly, didn’t appeal to me at all, with her obsession about her looks and her very erratic behaviour. One hundred years apart and these two women could not have been more different. Hannah was strong, passionate, capable, whereas Ellen was quite the opposite.

A River in the Trees is a very impressive debut. Jacqueline O’ Mahony is a history graduate and I would really love to see her write more within the historical genre. Her portrayal of Hannah’s story felt very authentic bringing the violence and the trauma of those days very vividly to life for the reader.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.