There is a very charming monkey in Lia Mills’s latest novel Fallen and he provides a foil to the strange circus that was the Easter 1916 Rebellion. As all her characters make abundantly clear, this insurrection was not of their choosing, they knew nothing about it and understood it less during the days from Easter Monday on. It is, in a way, a city circus and Paschal the monkey suggests the bewildering new language being given utterance, awkwardly, violently, apparently without the say-so of the ordinary city folk who teem the pages of this intriguing novel.
Katie Crilly is the middle-class daughter of careful parents. She lives in the safety of Rutland Square. Houses and settings are described carefully, and we are left in no doubt about the different strata of city life, and the Georgian structures within which both middle-class and tenement life unfolded. Katie’s brother Liam goes to war at the Front, and meets his death there. The novel gently touches on discussions between people regarding Home Rule, a relevant subject for the majority: allegiance to England is taken for granted by these characters, plus a general consciousness of being part of the Empire, and a subsequent duty to go to war on the Front. The question of Irish freedom via rebellion is never remotely discussed in advance of the Easter Monday debacle which Katie and her companions find themselves uncomprehendingly embroiled in.
Katie is an educated young woman of her time – modern, pragmatic, and not given to flights of fancy although her nature is passionate – and expectations regarding women and how they should conduct their lives are underscored subtly but frequently in this deftly-woven narrative. We learn quite early on, for example, that her mother opposed her continuing at university to study for an MA in history, although she clearly has a brimming intelligence. Marriage and children are expected for girls of her class, and the book provides several examples of this.
Mills also introduces us to a chaste era. When, after Liam’s death, his fiancee Isabel confides in her that she ‘lay with him’ one day in Wicklow, Katie is at once stunned by the information as much as the fact that she now believes she hardly knew her brother at all. There is a moral centre to Katie throughout. She is not given to hearing or passing on morsels of information that might sully another’s character, and indeed as a right-standing citizen the writer has created a memorable figure whose novelistic value, although completely human and compelling, has symbolic attributes which suggest (perhaps) that it is people of intellectual and emotional balance, the quiet ones rather than the shrieking demagogues, who form the supporting spine of any political and social culture.
Katie’s relationships are explored, from her research work on city monuments with two older women at Percy Place, to her chronically ill married sister Eva (who married a Protestant surgeon against her mother’s wishes), to a highly compelling and serious character encounter between Katie and Liam’s best friend Hubie Wilson. Hubie carries his own survivor’s guilt and getting to the root of that, and the nature of his particular pain is something to which Katie is ultimately best suited. Subtly depicted loss abounds in the novel, and this light-handed, unpolemic touch provides real power as events unfold. Yet again and again, the reader is drawn into vivid scenes, the loss of life on the streets of Dublin, the terror struck by the Rebellion, the looting and very unpolitical aspects that go hand in hand with every war.
Then there is Katie herself – crossing and recrossing the city in her dead brother’s coat, sizes too big for her, but which to which she has an emotional and perhaps talismanic attachment – and her family’s loss of Liam, and the different ways of trying to come to terms with this; and lastly we follow Katie in her young woman’s instinctive search for a place in the world, a search which ultimately finds one destination with just the right ballast for a character such as she. She is no weakling, nor is she a heroine. Instead, she is a human being who does not proclaim or declaim, who has found herself as people everywhere usually do, at sea when the world loses coherence and wickedness prevails.
Mills’s language is often poetic. She loves to describe light and how it falls, she provides sensuous textures of a city one cannot but love (speaking as a reader), she brings to life the generations that stand behind us, who often did not know what they were shaping into being, nor how, and she creates an intelligent, gripping, panorama of it all.
This is one of the first ‘1916’ novels, one of several that will no doubt emerge from publishing houses in the next year and a half. It is peopled with characters who understand love, loss, pain, forgiveness and reconciliation, but the gift of Mills’s writing is to be found in the seamless manner in which she opens this particular aperture to our often misunderstood past, particularly in relation to the formation of the Irish State.