The Emigrant's Farewell by Liam Browne

A paint-roller's no good for a miniature
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The Independent Culture

This is a first novel, but not the first novel of its kind. Plundering a well-mined vein of Irish melancholy, Liam Browne's debut begins with tragedy: the death of the only child of loving parents. It is his high-water mark, both stylistically and emotionally. The post-mortem effects of this seismic event become the bones of the book, as Joe and Eileen O'Kane watch their married life being spliced by the death of their daughter, Ciara.

We are in Derry, in the present. But you would not think so to hear Joe and Eileen talk. There is a maudlin, post-war strain to the dialogue and a nostalgic crepe cast across the Northern Irish landscape. It is a little jolt when Joe uses a mobile phone towards the end, so unencumbered has his story been by the trappings of the 21st century.

Perhaps the subplot infiltrates too keenly. Joe, unemployed when we first encounter him, eventually finds work as a historical researcher. His task is to collate information about the great Derry shipbuilder of the mid-19th Century, William Coppin, who also lost a young daughter.

The story of Coppin gathers momentum in its own right. The spirit of his dead daughter, Weesy, begins to speak to his other children about Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition to find the North-west Passage. We watch Coppin's increasing obsession with the case, the building and destruction of his great ships, and his progression into old age and penury.

The parallels between the plight of Coppin and Joe, one might think, are self-evident. But it is vexing to be told so. Tonally, too, there is little to choose between the 19th and the 21st century narratives that play alongside one another. It is as if Browne, as embroiled as he was in the mapping of one story on to another, mixed his oils too much and fixed on a uniform colour: too modern for Coppin and too dated for Joe.

Simile, too, can be laid on a little thick. In the novel's opening chapter, when a young Coppin saves several sailors from a watery death, the customs men are "frozen in exaggerated attitudes of terror like figures on an ancient frieze"; the wind is "like a bird of prey fastening upon its quarry"; his body is "like a cable tensed to the point of snapping". The images are precise enough, but distracting. It is a shame, because in his passages of bare action, Browne is urgent and affecting. His moments of plain style, however, are overwhelmed by his penchant for the writerly.

Such collected complaints weigh up because there is promise here. The moments in which Joe and Eileen contemplate the death of their child are enough to suggest that Browne can present an engaging, nuanced view. But a narrative, such as this, concerning itself with private, intimate grief requires consistent work in miniature. In The Emigrant's Farewell, the fine brush is too often replaced by the paint roller.