BOOK REVIEW / New man is in Ireland: The Promise of Light - Paul Watkins: Faber, pounds 14.99

Justine Picardie
Saturday 05 September 1992 23:02

PAUL WATKINS is the kind of writer that uncharitable people love to hate. A 28-year-old former public schoolboy, his first novel, Night Over Day Over Night, was entered for the Booker Prize; his next, Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn, won the Encore Prize for best second novel of the year, and is now being made into a film. His third novel In the Blue Light of African Dreams received extremely good reviews. He has been compared to Hemingway and Saint-Exupery. And he's handsome.

His new novel, like the previous three, is dramatic and action-packed. Set in 1921, it tells the story of Ben Sheridan, a young American, who discovers that his recently deceased father and long-dead mother were adoptive parents. He sets off to their homeland, Ireland, in search of his true identity, and becomes embroiled there in the savage Black-and-Tan war. Caught up on the side of the Irish Republican Army, he does, eventually, discover the truth about his own past. But he must also face the impossible complexity of the struggle to define Ireland's new identity.

On the boat from America to the west coast of Ireland, Sheridan sees the journey as his 'great adventure'. The quest to find his real parents becomes far more dangerous than he had ever imagined. But the novel keeps the feel of an adventure story throughout. When he is arrested by British soldiers and then beaten up, the terse, shocking description of the violence distances both the reader and the hero from the pain that is being inflicted: 'I knew what was coming. The butt of the Webley crashed into my head. Vaguely, I felt myself falling. Then my body jolted on the ground. I thought they might be hitting me. But as the darkness settled, I realised it was my heart, trying to kick its way out of my chest.'

After 50 or so more pages of graphic violence, reading the book begins to seem a bit like watching a Hollywood action film. The hero shoots people, and gets shot at himself. But you can't believe he's ever going to die. He thinks the same. Even at the last shootout, outnumbered by the enemy, he believes that 'although the chances of surviving were nearly zero, still they were not completely zero.' And - guess what - he's saved in the nick of time.

The Promise of Light is better than a Boy's Own adventure story: the prose is sometimes startling, and always well-crafted. It may not be for the faint-hearted; it will, nevertheless, be greatly enjoyed by officers and gentlemen and schoolboys young and old.

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