#BookReview The Sunken Road by Ciarán McMenamin @VintageBooks

The Sunken Road PBAbout the Book

Annie, Francie and Archie were inseparable growing up, but in 1914 the boys are seduced by the drama of the Great War. Before leaving their small Irish village for the trenches, Francie promises his true love Annie that he will bring her little brother home safe.

Six years later Francie is on the run, a wanted man in the Irish war of Independence. He needs Annie’s help to escape safely across the border, but that means confronting the truth about why Archie never came back….

Format: Paperback (272 pages )          Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 17th February 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The story unfolds in alternating chapters moving between the trenches of France in 1915/16 and Ireland in 1922 during the Irish War of Independence. I’ll admit the latter is not something I knew much about prior to reading this book. What I learned can perhaps be summed up by one character’s observation, ‘The North, the South, the British, the Specials, the Free State Army, the IRA. It’s a right fuckin’ mess up here’.

The author has an actor’s ear for dialogue and the rhythm of Irish speech. The book’s vivid, punchy language accentuates the black humour of Frankie and his comrades. Apart from drink, it’s their only shield against the memories of the terrible scenes they have witnessed and the senseless loss of life. The madness of war is exemplified by a trench raid which is hailed a success despite it yielding no results apart from the death of a highly regarded officer, awarded a posthumous DSO. ‘For conspicuous gallantry, in action… There is nothing conspicuous about him now. Apart from his fucking absence.’

The Sunken Road is not a book for the faint-hearted as it includes harrowing scenes depicting the realities of trench warfare in France and Belgium during the First World War. ‘There is a uniformity to men’s voices when they choke on their own blood while begging for their mother’s tit. A million shells from thousands of guns for hundred of hours.’ It is during his time serving with the British army that Frankie first encounters the man who will become his nemesis – a man who is a bully, a coward and a hypocrite.

It is only in the final chapters of the book that Annie – and the reader – discover the tragic circumstances surrounding Archie’s failure to return from the war. The author resists the temptation to end the book on an uplifting note (echoes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) although you could say that a kind of justice is served.

I thought the writing was superb and the characters of Frankie, Archie and Annie beautifully realized. There’s Archie, the gentle dreamer who believes it is his ‘destiny’ to liberate Europe, Frankie, the loyal friend tormented by guilt, and Annie, the feisty young woman torn between love and an unwillingness to forgive.  Although not an easy read, I found the book incredibly moving, immersive and utterly gripping.

The Sunken Road is the fifth book I’ve read from the thirteen books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 and it’s definitely up there with my favourite book so far, The Fortune Men.

In three words: Powerful, dark, gripping

Try something similar: Where God Does Not Walk by Luke McCallin

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Ciaran McMenaminAbout the Author

Ciaran McMenamin was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in 1975. A graduate of the RSAMD, he has worked extensively for the past twenty years as an actor in film, television and theatre. His acclaimed first novel, Skintown, was a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick.

Connect with Ciaran

4 thoughts on “#BookReview The Sunken Road by Ciarán McMenamin @VintageBooks

  1. This wasn’t really my sort of book, but I still found it gripping and powerful. It will be interesting to see if it makes the shortlist.


  2. I’m also not as up on the Irish War of Independence as I’d like to be — constantly confused by the overlapping timelines of the Easter Rising, World War I, and the Irish Civil War. A novel might be a helpful way to get a better understanding.


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