BOOK REVIEW / The hands-on history woman: 'Away' - Jane Urquhart: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'WHILE the men chopped trees, their wild hair flying, their bare backs glistening, the women sang the song of the axe.' This is pretty sugary stuff from the Canadian writer whose previous novel, Whirlpool, won so much acclaim. When a North American of Irish extraction attempts a fictional re-creation of the old country, there is always a danger that she will fall for romanticised cliches, and this saga of 'Irish idyll turned famine nightmare followed by struggle and achievement in the New World' has enough fiddlers, whiskey and blarney to keep any St Patrick's Day parade happy.

Away begins in the first half of the 19th century, off the north coast of Ireland, where the young O'Malley family finds its bliss shattered by British bureaucracy (which leaves father without a job) and the blight of the potato famine. Young Mary O'Malley has, like all self-respecting Irish heroines, an unbridled spirit of passion: only the ocean can understand her. (The motif of water as freedom continues through the novel, ending at a polluted Canadian estuary.) Once the family has sailed to Canada, Mary runs away to find herself, as any wild Irish girl must.

The rest of the O'Malley family are minding their own business in the middle of their Canadian forest when a bumbling philanthropist arrives from out of the blue. Osbert Sedgewick has barely been at the remote cabin five minutes when a piece of gold is discovered in the earth, prompting Osbert to pay the family so much cash for the land that they quit the forest and live in style for the rest of the book. Osbert is never mentioned again.

It is now the turn of Mary's daughter, Eileen, to discover her passionate Irish roots by falling for a dancing patriot called Aidan Lanighan, who is committed to preserving the national identity of the Irish in Canada against the efforts of the politicians who want to unite all immigrants and form a new Canadian identity. Eileen risks her life to help him against the chief perpetrator of this threatened calamity, D'Arcy McGee, only to learn that Aidan is in fact a spy: 'I was working for him against the fanatics - against people like you.' Given that we have only known Lanighan for about 30 pages, this fanfared twist in the tale is more baffling than dramatic.

The best parts of the book are in the absorbing historical detail, the result of impeccable research. But the fictional characters, too many and too thinly spread, do not earn our involvement, and each scene seems another air-brushed tableau of the Great Irish Struggle.