The Emigrant's Farewell - Book of the Month
by Liam Browne
A catastrophic accident catapults a Derry family into the bleakness of profound grief. Their struggle to come to terms with the aftermath and life itself are interwoven with the strange story of the 19th century search for the North West passage. In this rich tapestry we encounter hardship, lands frozen in ice and ghosts, all described in elegant, compelling prose.
How do individuals cope with catastrophe? It is not possible to predict much in grief’s course or duration nor the trail of devastation it will wreak.
Thus the O’Kane family is transported, from content ordinariness to acute and crippling pain. It is a journey so tangible, so physical as to mirror the journey made by emigrants in the 19th century, leaving behind Derry and their beloved Ireland. A strange limbo follows for the O’Kanes, as both security and reason for living is blown away. Their reactions are very individual - Eileen is unreachable, going into a quiet, unresponsive survival mode. Joe however, is tormented and searches desperately for reasons and meanings, constantly re-evaluating what is left or what can be salvaged.
Joe finds a sort of salvation in the form of a research job to trace the life of William Coppin, a mid 19th century Derry shipbuilder, and his role in the expedition to discover the Arctic’s North West Passage. A terrible story unfolds – of miscalculation, misfortune and the monstrous power of the Arctic. A rescue mission falls prey to the ice and repeat expeditions attempt to recover bodies and understand the reasons for the disasters. Joe finds the research cathartic, the horror of the men’s fates may even dwarf his own troubles and he realizes after studying the life of Captain Franklin, that he does not have the monopoly on grief.
Despite the bleakness of the narrative this novel is strangely uplifting. The characters are basically optimists, good people doing battle with a terrible situation forced upon them. There is a sense of solidity, solid foundations and bonds of deep affection throughout the novel – for Derry and between each of the characters. Joe’s relationship with his father Patsy is one of the strengths of the novel. Some passages offer tantalizing glimpses of the supernatural, and these are woven in naturally and without sensationalism but extremely disturbingly.
Browne’s descriptions of place are vivid and painterly, transporting us to the dark, watery landscape of Northern Ireland and the frozen Arctic. Derry itself cannot help but recall recent conflicts, but here Bogside and Creggan are simply places where people live in the city.
Throughout, the prose is clear and elegant and delicate emotions are portrayed simply and carefully. Some passages are unbelievably poignant but not actually sad, and this makes the novel exceptional and singular. As a debut this is very fine. I have a feeling we are going to be hearing much more of Liam Browne.
Read our interview with Liam Browne.