The Family on Paradise Pier by Dermot Bolger

It's time to leave the Big Bolger House
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Dermot Bolger's expansive tale of three members of a privileged Irish family breaks one very important rule of the family-saga genre. As he shows us what happens to siblings Eva, Art and Brendan, Bolger gives the lie to the notion that people change. And family sagas like change. Like the self-help manual, the family saga wants us to know that we can improve on the raw material, become better, smarter, richer, kinder, if only we do this or say that.

But in Bolger's world of political upheaval and class divide, his characters do not become smarter, richer or kinder. Anything they learn about themselves they suppress, anxious to stay the way they always were. Not even life in Moscow at the height of Stalin's purges can rid Art of his Communist ideals; a loveless marriage can't make Eva take a chance on a different man.

The novel opens in 1941 with the youngest of the three, Brendan, being transported to a Soviet Gulag. While he nears his fate, sister Eva is back in Ireland with her two children and without her estranged husband, and brother Art is enduring internment in an Irish camp. Having set up this curious outcome, Bolger has no choice but to show us how his characters got here, and so we dip back into life in the Big House, symbol of the Irish Ascendancy, in 1915.

The "Big House" as metaphor has been done to death in Irish literature, and mercifully Bolger pretty much leaves it alone, beyond offering up its dual purpose as sanctuary for the family in general, as well as noose-around-the-neck of Art in particular, who stands to inherit it. Bolger is far more interested in looking beyond the house - to foreign shores, where political struggles are taking place, or simply to the lakes and woods where personal promises are made and then broken.

The family saga is a conservative medium; by breaking its rules Bolger should have produced something less conservative. But this novel remains strangely conventional, and, for all its expansiveness, is an oddly unsatisfying read.