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Country by Michael Hughes


by Michael Hughes

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Where was this book when I was in school? Homer & I had a rocky relationship & by the time I graduated, we were barely on speaking terms. With this retelling of The Iliad, Michael Hughes takes the legendary poets’s themes & characters & plunks them down in 1996 Northern Ireland, just after the signing of the peace accord.

Like many great tales, it all begins with a woman. Nellie is a young Catholic who is part of a new generation. Tired of grinding poverty & endless violence, they yearn for a life beyond “the Troubles”. So when she’s offered money to inform on her IRA husband & his crew, she sees it as her ticket to a new life in London & grabs it with both hands.

Think of her as a modern Helen which means her husband Brian Campbell is this version’s Menelaus. Brian is part of a group led by his brother Shane (think Agamemnon) & follows him with unquestioning loyalty. So when they learn Nell is a tout, they vow to blow up a nearby English army post in retaliation. It’s not just what they do, it’s a matter of family pride. But they’ll need the help of sniper Liam “Achill” O’Brien to guarantee success (no points for recognizing him as our Achilles).

Liam is more than a competent marksman. He’s a legend in these parts & the mere whisper of his name is the stuff of nightmares for English soldiers. He’s been picking them off for years & truth be told, he’s getting a little tired of the whole damn mess. If the peace accord holds, he’ll be out of a job & lately he’s been thinking of returning home to the island of Achill. Now he’s being asked to continue the slaughter just to salvage a man’s pride.

In alternate chapters we’re introduced to Henry, an aging English combat veteran who has no time for the hopeful blather being spewed by politicians. He embodies Homer’s Hector, a soldier addicted to the glory of war at the expense of everyone else in his life. HIs days on active duty are numbered & taking out Liam would guarantee his legacy.

And so the stage is set. It’s inevitable there will be a mighty clash between these characters & many others. The contemporary setting makes this powerful story more relatable & N. Ireland in particular is the perfect location to explore Homer’s classic themes of honour, pride, fate, loyalty & mortality. Instead of dealing with the big picture, the author uses a small band of characters to represent the brutal effect of decades of war. This narrow focus personalizes the Troubles, helping us understand how they’ve inherited so much bitterness & hatred.

It’s clear from the start we’re in for a bloody ending but much of the book is more dialogue than action. It’s written in Irish vernacular & although I found this difficult to understand at times (my failing, not the author’s) it lends authenticity to the narrative.

It’s written as if someone is telling you a story while you share a pint, a story about people who can’t escape their circumstances or even imagine a different life. For them fighting is like breathing & as in the original tale, there are few winners here. It’s an engrossing read & I can’t help but think if I’d had this version while in school I’d have got a better grade. ( )
  RowingRabbit | Jun 30, 2019 |
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'Reading this book is like sitting in the pub listening to a good friend tell you stories. It does what only the best retellings can and makes you see the myth anew' Daisy Johnson That was the start of it. A terrible business altogether. Oh, it was all kept off the news, for the sake of the talks and the ceasefire. But them that were around that part of the country remember every bit. Wait now till you hear the rest. Northern Ireland, 1996. After twenty-five years of conflict, the IRA and the British have agreed an uneasy ceasefire, as a first step towards lasting peace. But if decades of savage violence are leading only to smiles and handshakes, those on the ground in the border country will start to question what exactly they have been fighting for. When an IRA man's wife turns informer, he and his brother gather their old comrades for an assault on the local army base. But the squad's feared sniper suddenly refuses to fight, and the SAS are sent in to crush this rogue terror cell before it can wreck the fragile truce, and drag the whole region back to the darkest days of the Troubles. Inspired by the oldest war story of them all, this powerful new Irish novel explores the brutal glory of armed conflict, and the bitter tragedy of those on both sides who offer their lives to defend the honour of their country.… (more)

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