I was really excited about reading this book; I’m from Cork, and have also spent a lot of time in West Cork, where this novel is set.
Ireland is about to be torn apart by the War of Independence.
Hannah O’Donovan helps her father hide rebel soldiers in the attic, putting her family in great danger from the British soldiers who roam the countryside. An immediate connection between Hannah and O’Riada, the leader of this hidden band of rebels, will change her life and that of her family forever . . .
Ellen is at a crossroads: her marriage is in trouble, her career is over and she’s grieving the loss of a baby. After years in London, she decides to come home to Ireland to face the things she’s tried so hard to escape. Reaching into the past, she feels a connection to her ancestor, the mysterious Hannah O’Donovan. But why won’t anyone in her family talk about Hannah? And how can this journey help Ellen put her life back together?
I love a dual timeline in a book. This is the story of two women from the O’Donovan family – Hannah and Ellen, separated by 100 years.
In 1919, Hannah’s life is about to be turned on its head. Ireland is in the midst of The War of Independence, and a band of freedom fighters are on the run from the ‘Tans’ (Black and Tans).
The countryside is crawling with Tans now, Noreen,” he said. “They’ve blocked the roads around Skibbereen. They’re searching all the bogs. One of them was injured back in Garrymore,” said Jimmy, sounding delighted, like he was reporting back on a match he’d seen that evening. “He was shot in the leg and he has a bit of a limp now. And Jesus, another one went half mad they say and started crying for his mammy after the lorry exploded and it all started. That’s why they didn’t make it to the pass. They were too slow.”
Hannah assists her father in providing refuge for the three fighters who were left behind. The decision to shelter these refugees causes a rupture in the O’Donovan household, with Hannah’s mother, Noreen, and sister, Eily, advising that it is too dangerous.
The lorry they blew up was carrying the general from the train station to the barracks,” he said. He sounded sombre now. “And by god, they say they blew it to heaven. There were bits of bodies everywhere. The bird will be eating flesh off the trees in Skibbereen for days to come yet.” He paused to let his words land. “The general himself was thrown clear of the lorry and O’Riada finished him off with a shot to the head, close range.”
When the men arrive, Hannah experiences an instant attraction to O’Riada – a man used to killing, but also a man who is respected.
“They say Michael Collins himself holds him in high regard.”
It becomes clear that he is also attracted to her.
Hannah’s involvement with O’Riada has repercussions which threaten the quiet life she has always known in West Cork, and impact upon her family for generations to come.
In 2019, Ellen returns to West Cork to meet with an estate agent so she can view the old family home. The O’Donovans mysteriously left the house and land following the War of Independence, but Ellen is not sure why – it was never spoken about in her family. Really, she is seeking refuge and solace from her life in London, which has derailed somewhat. When we first encounter Ellen on her journey to West Cork, we meet a woman who is full of self-loathing and anger, which she also directs at those around her. Her marriage is in crisis, and she is filled with sadness for the babies she has miscarried, and for her daughter, who was stillborn. This telephone conversation with her husband reveals so much about the stage they are at in their relationship:
He answered after one ring.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” she replied. “How are you?”
“Good,” he said cheerfully. Then he gave a small, measured sigh. “OK.”
He’s remembered he’s talking to me, she thought, he doesn’t want to waste his good cheer on me.
“How was the journey?”
“I made it anyway,” she said. “The drive was the worst part. I got carsick towards the end and I had to throw up. It was carsickness and exhaustion combined, I think.”
“Poor Bunny,” he said, absent-mindedly.
In the beginning he had called her Bunny in affection; now it was what he called her all the time. He only called her Ellen when he was annoyed with her, or trying to convince her of something; her name, now, was a reprimand. He had forgotten, she thought sometimes, that she had ever been called Ellen. He had renamed her.
“Do you miss me, Simon?” she said, suddenly.
It was like picking at a scab, asking that question.
“I do, Bunny,” he said. “But you only left yesterday.”
“Are you relieved I’m gone?”
“I’m not answering that question now,” he said. “I just hope when you come back you’ll be in much better form. Much better.”
Ellen is lost; she is estranged from her mother and sister in Cork, and isolated in her own grief. Her visit to the ancestral home piques her interest in her great-aunt Hannah. In her search to discover the secrets of the past, she manages to unpick the tangled relationships in her own life, and makes some difficult decisions about her future.
This is a story where identity and belonging resonate loudly. Where you come from, where you belong, and whether you should stay or go are questions and issues that impact both Hannah and her great-niece, Ellen. It is beautifully written, and will appeal to many, especially fans of Irish fiction.
I really enjoyed reading A River in the Trees – it is beautiful and fierce. I will definitely be on the look out for future works by Jacqueline O’Mahoney.
Thank you to Quercus and River Run books for my gifted copy.
About Jacqueline O’Mahoney
Jacqueline O’Mahony is from, Cork, Ireland. She did her BA in Ireland, her MA at the University of Bologna, and her PhD in History as a Fulbright Scholar at Duke University, and at Boston College. She has worked as a writer, editor and stylist at Tatler, Vogue and the Irish Independent. She lives in Notting Hill with her husband and three young children.