Joseph O'Connor is marvellously versatile: this novel consists of a collage of first-person narratives, authorial overview, journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, acrostics, poems, footnotes, advertisements, transcripts of court proceedings and ballads which are often better than the 19th-century originals they imitate – and by that I do not mean that they are more literary, but more ballady.
O'Connor also has a wonderful ear for 19th-century American English, whether in the folksy vernacular of a freed slave, the sweary, virile language of an Irish immigrant or the ponderous diction of an educated Bostonian. Characters in Redemption Falls include the pitiless rebel guerrilla Johnny Thunders; the wild society beauty and poet Lucia O'Cruz; her husband Con O'Keeffe, a one-time Irish revolutionary, escaped prisoner, Unionist general and now governor of the lawless Southern town of Redemption Falls; and a young Irish woman who searches the length and breadth of the States for her mute teenage brother, a child soldier in the Civil War.
The cruelty and brutality of that war jump off the page – not in the hip-to-be-heartless manner beloved of some modern writers, but as though O'Connor shares the reader's indignation at the atrocities he records.
The novel is a skilful intertwining of several strands. I say strands, but each has matter enough for a slim novel in its own right: the Irish immigrant experience, a love story, a failed marriage, and the bitterness of the war between the states. The multiple viewpoints and the rich texture of the prose make this a slow starter – but give it 50 pages and you'll be swimming in O'Connor's sea.