Joseph O'Connor,
Star of the Sea
(Secker & Warburg, 2002;
Harcourt, 2004)

Star of the Sea is a name that inspires confidence, the sort of jaunty, streamlined ship that any would-be seafarer would be proud to board for a swift cruise across the sparkling ocean. But Star of the Sea is a hell-ship, barely seaworthy, carrying too many starving and pitiful Irish refugees from the great famine of 1847 in its hold, carrying too little food and fresh water, and numbering at least one black-hearted killer among its passengers.

Star of the Sea, a daring novel by Irish author Joseph O'Connor, is an engrossing tale of many parts. It is an engrossing murder-mystery set at sea. It is a piece of historical fiction that presents a vivid picture of a grim, hopeless time. It is a tale of disease and deprivation among the desperate poor of Ireland, whose hopes for escape are too easily shattered by circumstance. It is an indictment of class and privilege. It is a series of character sketches, colorful episodes, dark secrets and layered purposes.

For just over a dozen first-class passengers en route to America, the 27-day voyage is very different than it is for more than 400 hungry, sick and dying souls in steerage. Their time is spent in civilized pursuits, with fine cuisine, plenty of liquor, spacious apartments and various refined amusements. Below, it's a different story -- but, fortunately for the upper class, those huddled masses are kept largely out of sight and out of mind. And, as their death toll rises, the murderer paces the deck.

This ambitious book reads so realistically, it's hard to believe it's not lifted directly from the pages of history. Set within the framework of a voyage from Liverpool to New York, the story unfolds through a series of narrative sequences, flashbacks, letters, log entries and reminiscences. The dramatic and complex plot comes to us through varying perspectives. The focus is on several people, including a bankrupt Irish landlord, a disenchanted woman of business, an American newspaperman, an exotic prince, a housemaid with more than her share of tragic pasts, a noble captain and a crippled killer.

O'Connor juggles diverse points of view without ever letting the thrust of his story slip. He avoids the easy path, the overly sentimental images that could steal the wind from his sails; his blunt honesty about conditions in Ireland and aboard ship is a heavy enough weight in the belly that he need not resort to such obvious tricks. He wraps a vital message within an epic tale that will not soon be forgotten.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 May 2004

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