Shaun Ivory lives in England but comes from Ireland, which is where Friends of My Father (originally published as No More Heroes) is set, and where he’s had his greatest success with this book to date.
This compelling novel begins as a gentle coming-of-age type of tale, told from the point of view of a young boy on the verge of adulthood who is suddenly noticing the feminine charms of his spirited best friend Maura. The amusing early descriptions of small-town Irish life and the likeable nature of the young hero lured me into a false sense of security, soon to be overturned.
Brendan Lavelle’s narrative is set in 1943 in a sleepy, impoverished Irish town, where not much remarkable seems to happen. The country is officially neutral in the Second World War, though plenty of men are going off to fight, as they did in the First World War – still referred to Brendan as the Great War, and by the grown-ups, bitterly, as “the war to end all wars”. In the opening scenes, there is plenty to amuse the reader in the portrait of young Brendan Lavelle, his family and friends, and a lot of nostalgia about a way of life now gone for ever, not least because of the War.
But suddenly Brendan’s relatively sheltered world view is shattered by a series of shocking events and discoveries which relate to events from two previous wars. Soon young Brendan is treading a dangerous path that threatens not only his own life but also Maura’s, his idolised GP father’s and his beloved invalid mother’s, and his enemies have nothing to do with the Allies’ enemies.
The two wars concerned are of course the First World War (and the subsequent decimating Spanish flu that killed even more people than the war) and the Irish Civil War. Sensitive portraits of those affected by these events add depth and poignancy to the story. The knowledge that “The Troubles” will decimate Irish society for decades after the Second World War also hangs heavy over the reader.
Shaun Ivory writes very well indeed, whatever the tone or subject matter. Whether spinning nailbiting adventure, painting nostalgic portraits of times gone by or writing light comedy, he segues effortlessly between moods, playing with the reader’s emotions and expectations, always moving at a cracking pace. He had me reading late into the night, turning the pages as fast as I could, though I was careful not to speedread for fear of missing any of the author’s wit – there are some choice phrases and observations thrown in amid the pacy plot.
Ivory has a very vivid imagination, not only with regard to character development but also to setting. Brendan’s world is brought to life with the clarity of the cinematographer. The trappings of two trades featured in the plot were particularly striking and original – but I won’t name them here, for fear of spoiling the story. This would make a terrific film.
I don’t want to say much more than that, for fear of giving away the clever plot – just read it and enjoy.
Compare and Contrast
In a way, this book put me in mind of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective as a tale of a boy losing his innocence in a rural backwater. The moving and graphic passages about fighting in Gallipoli, where Brendan’s father won medals for bravery, would provide a thought-provoking addition to studies of the war in literature.
This is a winning and poignant combination of nostalgic affection for the Irish community and harsh political realities. It would appeal particularly to thriller fans, to anyone with a special interest in Irish politics or Irish literature, with an Irish heritage, or keen on the history of the two World Wars. But those interests are not necessary for to enjoy this book, and I hope it will reach the wider audience that it deserves.
Find out more about Shaun Ivory at his website here: www.shaun-ivory.com.