I became aware of this book when it appeared on the Walter Scott Prize longlist in February and thought it would be a good choice for this month’s Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books). Ciarán McMenamin is a Northern Irish actor and writer and The Sunken Road is his second novel.
The Sunken Road follows the story of Francis Leonard, known as Francie, who goes off to fight in the First World War with his best friend, Archie. Before he leaves, he promises Archie’s sister, Annie, that he will take care of her brother and bring him safely home when the war is won. Six years later, Francie is back in Ireland and has joined the IRA, fighting this time for his country’s independence. Finding himself a wanted man, pursued by Crozier, his former commander on the Western Front and now a member of the Ulster Special Constabulary, Francie is forced to go on the run. But what has happened to Archie and why has he not returned to Ireland? How will this affect Francie’s relationship with Annie, just when he needs her help more than ever? And what has he done to make Crozier hate him so much?
These questions are answered gradually as the story moves back and forth between 1915-16 on the battlefields of France and Belgium and 1922 in County Fermanagh and County Donegal, with occasional flashbacks to Francie’s childhood years, showing the beginning of his friendships with Archie and Annie. I found the jumping around in time a bit confusing at first, but as I got to know the characters better I was able to keep one timeframe separate from the other in my head and settle into the story. Although only six years have passed between the two periods, we can see how his experiences in the trenches have changed Francie, leaving him damaged, violent and desperate. Some of his actions since returning to fight in Ireland have been cruel and brutal and he is not an easy character to like, yet his interactions with Annie show that he is still capable of some tenderness and the fact that Annie – despite her heartbreak over what happened to her brother – doesn’t give up on Francie suggests that she thinks the man he once was is still there somewhere.
This book wasn’t entirely to my taste; I found it very violent, even for a war novel, and there’s a lot of focus on fighting, shooting and military life, things that I don’t particularly enjoy reading about. However, I was still gripped by the story and the very moving ending, although I wished I had a better knowledge of the history surrounding the formation of the Irish Free State as McMenamin doesn’t provide a lot of background information and just drops us straight into the action. If you do like a well-written war story and are looking for one set in Ireland, The Sunken Road would be an excellent choice. It’s written from such an interesting perspective – an Irish Catholic who fights in the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army against the Germans, then just a few years later finds himself fighting against the British for Ireland.
There are two other Irish novels also longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize: The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan and The Magician by Colm Tóibín. It will be interesting to see if any of them make the shortlist when it is announced in April.