Though I’ve never met Shaun Ivory in real life, I’ve known him online for a couple of years, having helped with his author website and fallen into an agreeable habit of exchanging occasional comments and observations. He lives in England but he comes from Ireland, which is where Friends of My Father (first published as No More Heroes) is set, and where he’s had his greatest success with this book to date.
Having enjoyed his company online – he often comments on my website posts and always makes me smile – I feel slightly embarrassed that I haven’t got round to reading his novels before now, so I was pleased to see that SilverWood Books had turned No More Heroes into an e-book, enabling me to download it to my Kindle at the bargain price of just £2.
I must admit the cover (which I don’t think is SilverWood’s work) had slightly put me off reading it earlier – I’d assumed it would be a harsh political thriller, and I’m a bit of an ostrich when it comes to politics. I’d happily be an anarchist, if only I could be sure that the rest of the world would be well-behaved.
So it was a lovely surprise to find that it started out as a gentle coming-of-age type of tale, told from the point of view of a young boy on the verge of adulthood who is suddenly noticing the feminine charms of his spirited best friend Maura. The amusing early descriptions of small-town Irish life and the likeable nature of the, er, hero lured me into a false sense of security, which was soon to be completely overturned.
Brendan Lavelle’s narrative is set in 1943 in a sleepy, impoverished Irish town, where not much remarkable seems to happen. The country is officially neutral in the Second World War, though plenty of men are going off to fight, as they did in the First World War – still referred to Brendan as the Great War, and by the grown-ups, bitterly, as “the war to end all wars”. In the opening scenes, there is plenty to amuse the reader in the portrait of young Brendan Lavelle, his family and friends, and a lot of nostalgia about a way of life now gone for ever, not least because of the War.
But suddenly Brendan’s relatively sheltered world view is shattered by a series of shocking events and discoveries which relate to events from two previous wars. Soon young Brendan is treading a dangerous path that threatens not only his own life but also Maura’s, his idolised GP father’s and his beloved invalid mother’s, and his enemies have nothing to do with the Allies’ enemies.
The two wars concerned are of course the First World War (and the subsequent decimating Spanish flu that killed even more people than the war) and the Irish Civil War. Sensitive portraits of those affected by these events add depth and poignancy to the story. The knowledge that “The Troubles” will decimate Irish society for decades after the Second World War also hangs heavy over the reader.
Shaun Ivory writes very well indeed, whatever the tone or subject matter. Whether spinning nailbiting adventure, painting nostalgic portraits of times gone by or writing light comedy, he segues effortlessly between moods, playing with the reader’s emotions and expectations, always moving at a cracking pace. He had me reading late into the night, turning the pages as fast as I could, though I was careful not to speedread for fear of missing any of the author’s wit – there are some choice phrases and observations thrown in amid the pacy plot.
Ivory has a very vivid imagination, not only with regard to character development but also to setting. Brendan’s world is brought to life with the clarity of the cinematographer. The trappings of two trades featured in the plot were particularly striking and original – but I won’t name them here, for fear of spoiling the story. This would make a terrific film.
I don’t want to say much more than that, for fear of giving away the clever plot – just read it and enjoy. I wish I’d read it sooner myself – it’s been on my to-read list for ages. I think with a more engaging cover, perhaps featuring young Brendan or the Irish rural setting in the 1940s, and looking less overtly political, it would have risen faster up my reading pile.
Compare and Contrast
In a way, this book put me in mind of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective as a tale of a boy losing his innocence in a rural backwater. With Lee’s centenary coming up, I’m tempted to reread his work now and compare the two. The moving and graphic passages about fighting in Gallipoli, where Brendan’s father won medals for bravery, would also provide a thought-provoking addition to studies of the war in literature.
This is a winning and poignant combination of nostalgic affection for the Irish community and harsh political realities. It would appeal particularly to thriller fans, to anyone with a special interest in Irish politics or Irish literature, with an Irish heritage, or keen on the history of the two World Wars. But those interests are not necessary for to enjoy this book, and now that it’s available as an e-book, I hope it will reach the wider audience that it deserves.
Find out more about Shaun Ivory at his website here: www.shaun-ivory.com.