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Ronan's Echo by Joanne Van Os

Ronan's Echo

by Joanne Van Os

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In 1916, twin brothers Denny and Connor Ronan are eager to prove themselves in the theatre of war, and at eighteen find themselves in the front line trenches in Fromelles, France, having left behind the flame haired beauty Bridie O’Malley, they both love. Sadly, only one survives the horrors of war and returns home to the arms of his beloved, but he is not the same man who left.
Nearly a century later, forensic anthropologist Catriona Kelso’s curiosity is roused when she learns her next assignment will be the exhumation and identification of the hundreds of World War 1 soldiers buried en masse on the French battleground, and that her great grandfather’s twin brother may be among them. Excited by the possibility, Cat begins to ask questions about her family, but uncovers more than one long buried secret.

A poignant tale of war, love and family secrets, Ronans Echo is a wonderful story from Australian author Joanne Van Os. Set largely in Manly, New South Wales, the narrative shifts between the present and the past, revealing the tragic legacy of war that blights the lives of four generations.

Dual timelines are often tricky for authors to negotiate but Van Os does so masterfully, developing two equally interesting storylines that converge to tell the tale of the descendants of the Ronan brothers. The wartime experiences of the returned Ronan brother at the Battle of Fromelles, echos through the family tree, sparking a legacy of violence after the symptoms of PTSD overwhelm him. Though the twist to the story of the Ronan twins is heavily foreshadowed, it takes little away from the intrigue of the novel, or its heartfelt sentiment.

The scenes that depict the Ronan brothers experience of war are particularly heartbreaking. The battle at Fromelles is believed to have led to the greatest loss of life by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War with over 5,500 Australians killed or wounded. Until recent years, 1,335 Australian soldiers remained ‘missing’ from the Fromelles battle, having no known grave but thanks to the efforts of a retired history teacher, the remains of 452 soldiers were discovered, identified and re-interred with full military honours. This is the project Cat lends her expertise to, and where she discovers a twist in her family history.

Cat knows few details of her lineage when she begins to ask her elderly Aunt Hattie and mother, Fiona, questions about the family’s past nearly a century later. She is shocked to learn of the tragedies that ended the lives of her great grandfather and his twin, and how these secrets have affected her own life, particularly in regards to her strained relationship with her mother, and her own aversion to commitment. For Cat, unraveling the mystery of her ancestry answers questions she didn’t realise she had.

A moving exploration of the legacy of war and family secrets, Ronan’s Echo is a well crafted and eloquent novel. I found it to be an absorbing and thought provoking story which I’d recommend to readers of both historical and contemporary fiction.

*Statistics sourced from the Australian War Memorial website ( )
1 vote shelleyraec | May 8, 2014 |
A few years after Bridie’s mother dies, Bridie along with her father, Eamonn, and brothers, Donal, Rory and Aidan move from Connemara Ireland to Australia in search of a better life. They are well off in Australia buying a large home which they name after their beloved Connemara and life is pleasant. Bridie befriends twins, Denny and Connor, and the three are soon inseparable. WW1 erupts and Bridie’s three brothers, along with the Ronan twins, enlist and are soon sent to fight for their country.
Almost a century on Fiona and her daughter Kat (Catriona), descendants of Bridie, are now living at Connemara. Kat is a forensic anthropologist and is on the team to go to France and identify the recovered bodies of lost Australian soldiers. However, after identifying one of the bodies as one of her ancestors long held family secrets come to the surface.

This is a remarkable and moving story full of intrigue, family skeletons, the horrors of war and how PTSD can damage generation after generation. However, above all this Ronan’s Echo is a story about family.
I am fascinated by genealogy and family trees so I loved the family tree at the front of the book and would often go back and just look at the names, birth years, who married who and connecting it back with the story.
The side story of forensics was captivating. How cool is it that modern day science can unravel the mysteries of the past?
The battle scene had me mesmerized and the characters were all so real I felt I could almost go online search the WW1 records and see the O’Malley and Ronan names there.
Being from Sydney myself, it was easy to picture the scenes around Manly and Circular Quay.

If you like stories about love or war or family they were all rolled into one here and perfectly executed. This is one of the few books I could read again and again. ( )
  Ronnie293 | May 5, 2014 |
Joanne van Os is a great story teller. This novel spans over a hundred years and four generations starting with the emigration of Eamonn O'Malley, his three handsome sons and his beautiful little daughter Bridie from Ireland to Manly in Sydney.
Eamonn, owner of a drapery business in Ireland, sets up shop in Manly and with his sons to help is soon able to buy a big house and property overlooking the sea and open two other shops. The start of 1914 finds the family very well off, with Bridie now fully grown and running the house trying to decide which of her childhood friends, the Ronan twins Denny and Connor, she wants to marry. When world war breaks out later that year Bridie's brothers join up, followed a year later by the twins and nothing is ever the same again for the O'Malley family.
Nearly a century later Kat Kelso, a forensic anthropologist and Bridie's great-granddaughter is sent out to Fromelles to help with the exhumation and identification of Australian soldiers still buried there. Kat makes some surprising discoveries about her family and uncovers a long kept secret that echoes down the generations and explains much of her family history.
In this novel, the author manages to convey the horror of war and the effects of post war trauma on the families of returning soldiers who can never return to the peaceful and normal lives they had before. Until recently, the loss of ANZAC lives in France had not been as well publicised as the slaughter at Gallipoli. However, it was every bit as drastic and devastating and the stories of the young men who died on French battlefields deserves to be told. Great story. ( )
  cscott | Apr 5, 2014 |
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"Did we have any relatives die in the First World War?" Forensic Anthropologist Kat Kelso's innocent question begins the unravelling of a hundred years of family history, lies and secrets. In 1916 twin brothers Denny and Connor Ronan are eager to get to the war before it's all over; Bridie O'Malley, their childhood friend and the woman they both love, watches them leave, understanding too late that war is about more than heroes and handsome boys in uniform. Nearly a century on from the disastrous battle of Fromelles, Kat Kelso, Bridie's great granddaughter, is on site in France identifying the recovered bodies of lost Australian soldiers. The discovery of her own relative amongst the dead men brings Kat, her mother Fiona and great-aunt Hattie, far more questions than answers. The wounds of love and war have devastating consequences that ripple across time.… (more)

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