The Emigrant's Farewell, by Liam Browne

How a father finds comfort from grief across the centuries
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The Independent Culture

The vogue for dual time-frame historical novels - in which a present-day narrative runs in tandem with a period one - can be traced back to AS Byatt's Possession. That template, of chapters alternating between a modern researcher and distant events, is copied one more time in Liam Browne's fine debut novel. The Emigrant's Farewell has as its modern detective Joe O'Kane, devastated by the sudden death of his young daughter, Ciara. While his wife Eileen retreats to her parents' house, Joe throws himself into his job as research officer at the heritage centre of their home town, Derry.

Joe finds distraction in the story of 19th-century Derry shipbuilder William Coppin, who lost a daughter of similar age. For all William's achievements, his name lives on most vividly as a bizarre footnote to the great maritime race to discover the Northwest Passage. The real-life story is this: when Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1846 failed to return from the Canadian Arctic, unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue or at least determine the fate of the ships. Yet Weesy Coppin was seemingly able to communicate from beyond the grave the exact spot where Franklin's ships ended. By the time anyone listened to William Coppin's counsel, Franklin and his men were long dead from starvation and scurvy.

While most people would dismiss the story as superstitious nonsense, Browne places it in the hands of the person most open to its resonance: the grieving parent. Joe, longing for atonement for his "unforgivable failure to guide a child into adulthood", finds more grounds for consolation the deeper he looks into Coppin's story and, through him, that of Franklin and his men.

When he reads of a 1986 expedition to disinter the frozen remains of one of Franklin's crew, we recognise the connection that this return from the dead affords. As we do when Joe feels Ciara alongside him on a half-deranged midnight walk. In letting these and other symmetries echo across the void, Browne falls for the temptation of this forensic approach to history - to scatter thematic overtones across the centuries and leave the reader to pull them together into a single chord of meaning.

Browne's writing in the Coppin/Franklin sections has great solidity, and he creates anguish in the collapse of the O'Kanes' marriage. Yet the relentless accumulation of ethereal chiming notes threatens to turn the novel into a linguistic version of Tubular Bells - a cannonade of secret harmonies.