A clear purpose of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea (Random House, 2004) is to present the suffering, prejudice, and mistreatment suffered by people of Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-19th century and more generally suffered at the hands of the English. The point of view shifts among an Irish maidservant, an Irish composer of folk ballads and also murderer, Pius Mulvey, an American journalist Grantley Dixon, and an English aristocrat David Merridith Lord who owns land on which he lives in Ireland. Others figure in as well, including Merridith’s father. The maidservant Mary Duane is at the center of the novel, but Merridith and Dixon are almost as important. Both have had affairs with her. All of these characters live entangled lives. This is an Irish novel, and although O’Connor gives us a range of English characters, some of whom he portrays with sympathy, his allegiances lie with the Irish.
This novel has many virtues and strengths. It is invariably interesting and engaging. It’s beautifully composed and structured. The characters are fully drawn in Dickensian fashion (Dickens himself makes a couple of appearances). But it gives as dark a story as one might imagine. Suffering and depravity are everywhere—in the streets of London, on the estates where Irish servants labor for British landowners, in the fields and ditches where Irish people die from famine and disease, in the hold of the ship, Star of the Sea, where Irish refugees are transported to America in hopes of an improved life, and in the American harbor where the ship, along with many others carrying Irish refugees, lingers for days waiting to be allowed to unload their passengers, who perish in growing numbers with the passage of each day.
O’Connor wants his reader to appreciate the enormity of the largely overlooked potato famine, which caused the deaths of as many as a million people, and from which as many as two million Irish citizens fled to the United States and other parts of the world. The consequence for Ireland and those who remained behind was devastating.
The message overwhelms the artistry of the book at times, if it is possible to extricate one from the other, and the book reads occasionally like a political tract, a work of historical documentation. This is understandable. The horrors O’Connor recounts, the suffering and racism, may be too fraught for fiction to bear. The historical events at the core of this novel are so appalling that fictionalizing them seems to trivialize them.