Thursday, November 4, 2010

Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor

Star Of The Sea - Farewell To Old IrelandTitle: Star of the Sea
Author: Joseph O'Connor
Pages: 395
Published: Harcourt 2002
Read For: Book Club #2
My Rating: 5 stars

Don't you love the cover to that book?  Alas, that isn't the cover on the book I own.  The book I read was decidedly less lovely in outward appearance.  Thank the good authors, however, that the innards stay the same regardless of the colors and fonts on the exterior.  (I'm going to be brave here and confess that I did something ultra-book-geeky: I purchased a copy of the pretty version, since I plan on keeping it on my shelf.  My justification: why, the other one can be passed on of course, and as the new one was more like almost new and only $3...I feel not a shred of guilt.  just a little embarrassment.  Carry on.)

I knew something different was going on with the structure of the book before I even reached the preface or read the first sentence.  After the title page, there is a secondary title page with a different title and author.  In retrospect, I feel a little silly that it took me almost the entire 395 pages to figure out what was plainly in view.  This process of discovery, however, was part of the charm of the book.  The secondary title page and the preface tell you outright whose story this is, and that the story ends with a murder.  But somehow, even with that foreknowledge, there is a surprising amount of detail unearthed along the way,  the ending holding more weight than would have seemed possible at the get-go.

I encountered my favorite sentence on the second page of the preface:
At night one sensed the ship as absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith, bobbing on a wilderness of viciously black water which could explode at the slightest provocation.
I remain amazed: someone finally understands how I feel about the ocean.

While the book takes place on the ship, the real story takes place in the back-stories and flashbacks.  This is the story of 1847.  It is the story of the hungry and starving Irish.  It is the story of the Upper Class and privileged, of literary and social circles.  It is the story of unfortunate women and depraved men.  It is the story of the innocent and the guilty--however you may interpret them to be.
Rumours adhered to him like barnacles to a hull.
I loved this book.  I loved the captain's statistics he recorded in his log; the glimpse into different social classes in Ireland during the Great Famine; the peek at the literary giants of the time.  I loved that the characters had depth, even if they do remain somewhat aloof.  I loved the titles and descriptions at the beginning of each chapter, and the humor interspersed with the more serious topics.  I loved the growing tension and the unexpected ending, even though you can see from the beginning what you are hurtling towards.
It felt to the killer as though the dilation of his pupils might be noisy enough to give him away.
Star of the Sea is not your classic ocean novel or murder mystery.  It's a great tribute to the millions of Irish people whose lives were cut short.  It's a great example of literary fiction and great writing.  If you are a reader of literary fiction, this will be a comforting, engaging read.  If you tend to stick to plot-driven stories, you may find this a tad slower or more dense than usual (judging from some of the responses of people in my book club).  Fabulous discussion fodder--I was thrilled to see my group's conversation at the end of the night turn toward our role with the homeless and hungry in the world today.
To remain silent, in fact, was to say something powerful: that it never happened: that these people did not matter.
Is that enough gushing already?  I typically try to keep my reviews much shorter than this, but there was just so much to say.  Have you read Joseph O'Connor and have an opinion to add?  Let me leave you with a quote, then let the discussion commence.
And as the name was uttered, some began to pray; and others began to weep in sympathy.  And others again who had lost children of their own began to utter their children's names.  As though the act of saying their names--the act of saying they ever had names--was to speak the only prayer that can ever begin to matter in a world that turns its eyes from the hungry and the dying.  They were real.  They existed.  They were held in these arms.  They were born, and they lived, and they died.  And I see myself on the deck in a scream of vengeance: as though it was my own spouse who had been scourged to despair; my own helpless child so cruelly destroyed.


  1. Thanks for the review! Those quotes are truly wonderful. I will add this one to my list of 'to read' books.

  2. I was surprised by how good it was. One of the girls in my book club thought it had been written ages ago because the language was so different from what she was used to.

  3. I have this book sitting on my shelf! With the nice cover you coveted so much. I like the cover too, and can completely understand needing to buy another copy with that cover. I came across this book during my visit to Dublin in June. My friend there had read it, and she sent me her copy as a surprise after I came back home to Australia (I'd deliberately not bought it as we were traveling on, and I didn't want to accumulate too many books). My friend had really enjoyed it too. I'm quite keen to read it. Some of my ancestors left Ireland because of the potato famine at that time, and so it holds an interest for me because of that too. I might have to see if I can wangle a way to move it a bit further up the TBR now. Thanks for your enthusiastic review Melody.

  4. Thanks for the comment Louise, it's good to hear that someone else out there enjoyed this too! I look forward to hearing what you think about it. It is one of my favorites this year.


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