Frank Delaney has proven to be a very consistent author. While not perfect, Shannon proved to be just as satisfying as his other recent works, filled with rich details about his home country and the quirks of its people.
Like with his previous books, Ireland
, Delaney crafts a complex and realistic character, and almost uses him as an excuse to explore the natural beauty, history, mythology, and politics of Ireland; the country itself tends to serve as the protagonist in Delaney's works. This time around, however, the story is considerably darker; the narrative follows Catholic priest and WWI veteran Robert Shannon, a victim of profound Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that was triggered first on the battlefields of France and again within the secret corners of the church after the war, as he travels along his namesake river in Ireland in an attempt to find his family's history. Though he makes the journey as a fragile innocent, attempting to heal his own shattered psyche, the reader learns that the trip might have been masterminded by powerful men in the church, and that the cause of his shell shock relapse might be more dangerous (to both those same powerful men and to himself) than he realizes. As Robert wanders like a sleepwalker through a nation troubled (unbeknownst to our war-weary traveler) with the beginnings of its own war, he is followed, guided, hunted, and protected by people who have various stakes in the success of his mental recovery.
That synopsis makes the story sound exciting, and with this book being a considerably slimmer volume (just under 400 pages) than Delaney's other books, I somewhat expected the story to move fast and focus more on the main narrative than on the enchanted Irish setting. This, however, proved not to be the case; Delaney tells the story with what I am beginning to recognize as his signature style, by setting a deeply conflicted character loose into a lush, fully realized, and lovingly painted landscape, and letting the story happen organically through the character's detailed observations of the land and people around him. This can make for slow going in terms of plot, but once again I found myself so enthralled by the colorful anecdotes, rustic characters, and political machinations of Delaney's Ireland that I didn't at all mind the leisurely pace of the story. The narrative eventually evolves into a poignant love story, if somewhat awkward and curiously solemn and light on actual passion, that is actually reminiscent of the main story of Tipperary
. While the last third of the book threatens to descend at turns into mawkishness and gloom, the ending maintains a surprising level of suspense and finishes on a quietly satisfying note, with all loose ends neatly tied up and (importantly, in my mind) the protagonists finding some of what they want/need while preparing to continue the fight for the rest.
Characters are given histories and depth through various flashbacks that detail the paths which led them to their current roles in the story. Things are a little hit and miss here; I found Robert to be a fascinating character, and was sympathetic to and curious about him from the very beginning. Ellie Kennedy, a figure from Robert's wartime past that ends up playing an important part in his current journey, is also an interesting and likable character. However, I think more time than necessary was spent on Robert's bombastic mentor in the church, and while details on the story's shadowy antagonist are important, a lot of them seemed somewhat irrelevant, if interesting. Some of the bit players in the story seem almost like stereotypes in their simplicity, though every one is certainly charming and enjoyable to read about.
Shannon seems almost like an experiment for Delaney; it feels like a step away from his previous atmospheric works, and an attempt at integrating that successful style into a more cohesive and engaging story. However, it retains most of what makes Delaney's stories so recognizable and interesting: the layered characters, the detailed (and entertainingly told) snippets of Irish history and mythology, and the tendency to make Ireland itself the real hero of the story. This clash of setting and plot threatens to be discordant every now and again, but it ultimately works. As with Delaney's other books, I would highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in Irish history or historical fiction, and most especially to those interested in both.