My third grade teacher had a rule for choosing books of the right reading level. You were supposed to turn to a random page in the middle of the book and read that page, counting the number of words you didn’t know. If you counted to five or more, that meant the book was too difficult for you. Had I applied that rule to At Swim, Two Boys, there is a reasonable chance it would have been deemed too hard for me. The book is full of archaic language, Irish slang and dialect, and sometimes just plain obscure words. As a further challenge, it is written in stream-of-consciousness style.
I picked At Swim, Two Boys on the recommendation of Geoff who blogs at The Oddness of Moving Things, but for the first few pages, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to manage to make it through this nearly six hundred page book. It did in fact seem to hard for me. Surprisingly quickly however, I found myself adjusting to the rhythm of the language and grew to love the writing. It’s full of double meanings, references, and plays on words, though I probably missed at least half of them. I laughed at several points to discover words that I’ve otherwise only heard used in songs by The Decemberists. Actually, I think The Decemberists would work well as a soundtrack to this book. Or else this book would make a great Decemberists album.
At Swim, Two Boys is about the relationship which grows between two teenage boys in 1915-16 Ireland, just before the Easter Rising which marked the beginning of the armed rebellion of the Irish against the British. The love story was laid out very well, with just the balance of tenderness and crassness that you might expect from teenage boys in love. The book also clearly portrays the challenge of resisting the self-hatred and self-destructiveness that result from living in a society that says that homosexuality is criminal, sinful, and just plain unnatural. The plot of the book develops very slowly, but somehow that worked for me. The slowness felt right for the story. (On the other hand, I didn’t think much of the ending.)
In addition to the language, I loved the characters. In particular, I loved Mr. Mack, father of one of the two boys. I’m not sure if I was supposed to love him, but I did. Mr. Mack is so polite that, “He’d bare his head to a lamppost,” but he always finds himself bumbling into situations he doesn’t quite understand. He wants to improve his status in the world- “the Macks is on the up” he says- but he doesn’t know quite how to do it. As a bit of a miser, he makes hurtful mistakes like not buying his son a birthday present, yet somewhat to his befuddlement he is generous when he sees people in need.
The book captures a lot of Irish culture- from the language, to the central role of the Catholic Church, to problems with alcoholism. Most of all, it deals with the stirrings of Irish rebellion against the British. World War I was going on and many Irish men were fighting for the British. (Interestingly, the Irish weren’t subject to a draft, although the British were.) At the same time many in Ireland were angry over England’s treatment of them. I hadn’t known previously that some Irish separatists actually collaborated with the Germans, promising to allow them to land in exchange for weapons to fight the British. Although I have sympathy for the desire for Irish independence, I have to say that I’m pretty shocked that they would collaborate with the Germans. There are lots of references to real people and places involved in the Easter Rising, but in most cases it is assumed that the reader already knows who they are, so I found that I needed to resort to Wikipedia to fully understand what was going on.
One reference I found interesting was to Liberty Hall, which turns out to have been the center of preparations for the Easter Rising. I immediately thought of the phrase, “This isn’t Liberty Hall” (meaning “Your behavior might be okay there, but it is unacceptable here”), and was pleased to have discovered the origin of it. However, when I Googled the phrase, I was surprised to find only 12 webpages with the phrase and several of those were repeats. I would have sworn that this is a common phrase that I have read in many places. Perhaps it was just in a book that I read often. Has anyone else encountered this phrase? Any ideas where I might have read it?