The book choice for Dublin: One City One Book 2016
“who was I, come to that, and what would the morning bring?”
The middle class Crilly family live near Sackville Street in Rutland Square and it is from this vantage point that they experience the events of 1916. The novel introduces us to Katie, a 22 year old history graduate who finds herself in limbo after her twin Liam has joined the army while she is prevented from further study by her mother, who desires nothing more from her than to marry a respectable Catholic man and have a family of her own.
However when the dreaded news arrives that Liam has been killed in action her life will never be the same. Katie’s “mind couldn’t fit itself around the shape of his absence” and she struggles to find her place in this changing environment. Her father arranges for her to work as a historical researcher for a local amateur historian and in time she pieces together more of Liam’s life by meeting with his fiancée and former soldier Hubie Wilson. As the Rising progresses Katie begins to break free of the expectations that have constrained her and gradually starts to grow into herself.
Fallen begins with the outbreak of war, before shifting onto the effects that bereavement and the toll of fighting for the Empire is taking at home, before shifting once more to tell the story of Easter week 1916.
Mills expertly uses the somewhat privileged voice of Katie to take the reader on a journey through the Rising as it might have been experienced by Dubliners at the time. This angle on the rising has not been fully explored in fiction yet putting Mills ahead of the curve. Fallen investigates the day to day challenges inherent in living in a conflict situation. The brief hospital scenes are excellent at highlighting the way in which the personal is affected by the political and military action taking place. Encompassing education, female suffrage and self determination one of the most striking elements is how the characters experiences of grief and survival are so visceral and yet the socialist intentions declared in the Proclamation seem to have little direct effect on the mass of the population as they run around Dublin trying understand what is happening.
Conflicted allegiances are explored both in terms of the personal battle Katie faces between her obligations to her family and desire to break free; and also the conflict faced by the Irish fighting in the war and the Irish supporting the Rising. The focus on the personal experience of Katie is one readers can identify with and also brings one closer to the events of 1916 helping to bring history alive for the reader.
Mills provides Katie with a potential love interest. This is one of the few unsurprising elements of the plot and although well done it would have been nice had Katie found her own way to maturity and certainty, without having to have a man lead the way. The romance is also a little hurried and one doubts how long lasting it will be when it has clearly been coloured by her grief.
The title is particularly interesting and has joint meanings:
“Mother said Liam was one of ‘The Fallen’, as though it was an honour”.
“I was the one who was fallen, now”.
As her brother fell into death Katie falls as she awakens sexually, stepping outside of the path set for her as Mills investigates sex and death in light of the nationalist and religious sentiments of the time.
The novels dedication is “for the city”. The descriptions of the Dublin are strong and vibrant; almost as though the city is an independent character at the heart of it all: “Sackville Street. An extension of my own street. The heart of my city”.
Fallen is a timely novel. There has been a process of actively reintegrating women into the narrative of the rising. The focus throughout remains on Katie as she tries to understand and find her place in life. The suggestion is that her ‘job’ is to wait for someone to marry her. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to marry anyone. But, if I didn’t, what would I do with my life? The truth of it was that I didn’t know what a person like me was for”.
Women feature prominently: mothers, sisters, fiancées, nurses and female academics. Although it is Liam who kick starts the story with his path acting as the catalyst for the rest of the action the novel maintains a firm focus on the women. In an interesting twist Mills is sure to avoid falling into the pitfall of idealising all of her women and shows her mother as often being one of the more conservative characters. She is always trying to maintain the status quo: respectability. Although often unlikeable she is a recognisable character and next to her her husband seems a little browbeaten, always trying to find the easy road.
There are one or two loose threads. A second brother Matt appears to act as a foil to his sisters, showing how relatively easy it could be for a man to do as he decides. However his character and plot lines are so thinly sketched out that this seems a little superfluous.
Fallen is a skilfully drawn evocative novel that brings the reader closer to Dublin and the events of 1916. Ultimately it is the city itself that is the strongest, most evocatively drawn character and we watch it as it is changed beyond all recognition, scarred but still standing.
Tag line: A tale of self discovery in among the confusion and uncertainty of Dublin from the outbreak of the First World War to the events of Easter week 1916.
Lia Mills, Fallen (Penguin Ireland, Ireland, 2014). ISBN 9780241964729. 276pp., Paperback.