THE CONCEPT of Rachel English’s first novel, the Irish emigrant experience over the decades in America, offers boundless opportunities for the writer and limitless journeys on which the reader might expect to find themselves on. Unfortunately neither ever quite gets there.
In Going Back I expected something of a comparative study, if you will, of the experience of young Irish migrants in 1980s Boston with that of their descendants in 2011 and all the glorious poetic license a fictional stamp provides to draw you into their tale and keep you turning pages until the wee hours.
But our 1980s protagonists – and their replacements in the most recent decade – are somewhat underdeveloped as characters, so it’s at times hard to engage with or become excited for their journey.
Although all the right parts are in place – lead lady, check, lead man, check, love story, check, shameful secrets and heart-breaking choices, c heck, check, – I find myself unable to invest in this tale.
In some respects it’s hard to believe that this crew of characters are indeed out of Ireland, or place them anywhere at all, so limited is the time spent building a picture of the differing landscapes they are simultaneously inhabiting.
I want to know how Boston looks, tastes, feels and smells and how that compares to Ireland and their hometowns, but find myself failing miserably to build an image in my head from the language on offer.
Similarly, there is too little depth in these semi-constructed characters to tell what they are indeed feeling and how this often forced economic emigrant path moulds their identity and reforms what they once thought they knew.
The privilege of the all-seeing reader – in the ability to transcend senses, read minds and understand emotions the characters may not even know they are having – is lacking here, although it could be generous and bountiful given the topic under the microscope.
When tackling emigration somebody has to leave, somebody has to stay and somebody has to welcome (willingly or not) new arrivals. There is displacement everywhere, and emotions understandably run high, but this is somewhat brushed under the carpet in favour of a semi-sizzling love story.
Yet these are all things I want to know. I expect the author to draw me a picture of a Boston street, the trees that line it, the families that live on it. Only then will I be able to place the characters as they traipse home along it, and experience their lessons, the awakenings that come with every turn, with every second away from home.
So, although the premise was current, topical and rich for the picking, for me Going Back failed to deliver.
That said, I am sure there can be little more challenging than penning one’s first book and with the author’s long-standing journalistic record I am sure this is a literary curve with which she will persevere and make her own. With that in mind I’ll happily go back and sample her second offering when it’s released next year.