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 spotting 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.