#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

Find The Sunken Road on Goodreads

Purchase links
Bookshop.org
Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops

Hive | Amazon UK
Links provided for convenience only, not as part of an affiliate programme


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

Follow this blog via Bloglovin


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
Goodreads 

#BookReview China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China RoomAbout the Book

Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days hard at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.

Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its ‘china room’ locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.

Format: Hardcover (245 pages)   Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 6th May 2021  Genre: Historical Fiction

Find China Room on Goodreads

Purchase links
Bookshop.org
Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops

Hive | Amazon UK
Links provided for convenience only, not as part of an affiliate programme


My Review

China Room is one of the books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 which was announced on 7th February. China Room is the fourth book on the list I’ve read and it was one that took some time to grow on me.

The book moves between the story of Mehar in 1929 and that of an unnamed narrator looking back from the present day (2019) to the time he spent in the Punjab as a young man. Although we never learn his name we know he is Mehar’s great-grandson. A photograph at the end of the book suggests that many of the childhood experiences he relates may reflect the author’s own.

Initially, I thought the later storyline superfluous and not as interesting as Mehar’s story which has something of the quality of a folktale about it, at least to begin with. However, the later timeline gradually gained more of my interest once I began to see the subtle parallels the author creates between the two stories. Although focussing on the members of one family separated by both time and geography, common themes emerge such as racial and gender discrimination.

Mehar’s experience is one of not being seen. For much of the time she is confined to the ‘china room’ of the title, endures conjugal visits from her husband in total darkness and is expected to be veiled at all times when outside. This contrasts with the experience of her great-grandson who recalls that as a child growing up in Britain, ‘I was always being stared at, my presence noted and remarked upon for its rarity in this town’. On the other hand, like Mehar, who is forced to keep her eyes averted when outside the ‘china room’, he confesses ‘I can’t remember ever looking up as a child without immediately feeling as if I had no right and should look away’.  Mehar and her sisters-in-law catch only glimpses of the world outside through the narrow gaps in the window of the ‘china room’, their early attention being on trying to work out which of the three brothers is their husband. In a neat touch, at one point Suraj, one of the brothers, wonders, ‘Are the women the ones who can see everything, while the men stare at black windows?’

There is some glorious writing especially the descriptions of the landscape around the farm. ‘The wheat is cloaked in sleeves of red and apricot and a nightjar perches watchfully on the well, jerking its head this way and that.’

The end of the book arrives rather suddenly and, although it ties up some loose ends, it felt a little rushed. I would have liked to learn more about Mehar’s later life and the generations between her and her great-grandson.

China Room is a quiet, unassuming novel that explores its themes with elegance and precision. It’s not my favourite of the longlisted books I’ve read so far (that would be The Fortune Men) but I can understand why it has gained a place on the list.

In three words: Subtle, eloquent, thoughtful

Try something similar: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Follow this blog via Bloglovin


Sunjeev SahotaAbout the Author

Sunjeev Sahota is the author of Ours Are the Streets and The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and won the Encore Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award. He was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. He lives in Sheffield. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

Connect with Sunjeev
Goodreads