Lia Mills’ novel Fallen is the Dublin: One City One Book choice for 2016 and for the first time Dublin has teamed up with Belfast for a Two Cities One Book Festival. As a literary contribution to the centenary celebrations of Easter 1916, it means that readers north and south in Ireland can explore the same book from different viewpoints.
Fallen tells the story of the events of Easter Week 1916 in Dublin, but despite being an historical novel, the story is told from the point of view of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and is at once a more accessible and a more humane read.
Katie Crilly is the daughter of a wealthy family in Dublin, trying to find a meaningful path through life that may or may not involve the marriage and children that is expected of her.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to marry anyone. But if I didn’t, what would I do with my life? The truth of it was that I didn’t know what a person like me was for
As the novel opens, we learn that she has been denied a place to study for a Masters in History due to her mother’s disapproval. Returning home, she finds that her beloved twin brother Liam has signed up to fight in WW1. Lost without her brother, Katie takes a research job with a couple – May and Dorothy – who are writing a book about Dublin’s monuments and she comes to find herself in the work.
I loved the discipline of chasing an idea, assembling evidence, constructing and argument…I loved the almost physical sensation of learning, an expansive stirring and waking in my mind
But then the unthinkable, or perhaps the inevitable happens. Liam is killed on the Western Front and the family and his fiancee deal with their loss in different ways. For Katie, Liam’s loss is like a loss of identity. She is no longer a twin and feels his death deeply.
If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go… Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice, words I’d memorised, from his letters.
As Katie tries to make sense of her life and come to terms with Liam’s death, she becomes caught up in the events of the Easter Rising in 1916 and finding refuge from the fighting with May and Dorothy, she also meets their nephew, Hubie Wilson, who fought alongside Liam in France. He is the only person who can give her an insight into how Liam experienced life at war and the circumstances of his death.
This is essentially a coming-of-age story, but what elevates it is that Katie’s self-determination is played out against a nation’s own act of self-determination. This is an historical novel, but if a reader is looking for the facts of the Easter Rising, they will not be found here. Mills is careful to make the Rising the backdrop and not the focus of her novel. We learn no more than what the large cast of characters learn, and the gunfire, fighting and soldiers appear in snippets and fragments, experienced as Katie travels around the chaotic city, trying to get her family to safety, helping at a hospital and eventually becoming ensconsced with Hubie at the fringes of the fighting. By focusing on the personal, Mills presents us with a picture of ordinary life within conflict.
This is not unfamiliar material, but Mills has crafted a tale of integrity and emotion. Her language is clear-sighted and humane and through Liam’s letters, she writes of war with a skill and ambition that would be on a par with Faulks at his best.
Lines from his letters scrolled through my mind, evoking their strange images: a grey-coated figure falling like a tree in a clearing, causing birds to clack and flap into a wheeling sky and vanish; the ghosts of leaves tumbling among echoes of snapping branches; mud underfoot and everywhere you looked. Rock-solid mud.
Neither does she shy away from the horror of fighting, be it at the Front or on the streets of Dublin and she explores the conflicting allegiances that come with fighting in any conflict. Katie uses her brothers’ experiences as a framework to understand the Rising and as a narrative device it is extremely successful.
The war would drag on ’til there was no one left to fire the rusted empty guns on the last survivor, who would long have forgotten what silence was, what it sounded like
For me though, the most interesting part of the novel was the depiction of female friendship and the idea of female self-actualisation. Katie is an intriguing character with her love of learning and wish to have the same prospects as her brother. Her relationships with her sister Eva, and May and Dorothy are as core to the fabric of the novel as her inevitable love interests. May and Dorothy may well be lesbians, it is interesting that we are never explicitly told, but Mills points out that for the time, it is more scandalous that they are campaigning for women to have the vote.
Mills also has a lovely eye for descriptive detail. A day is described as ‘a slowly closing door‘ while Dublin ‘boiled with people, a seething cauldron of firelight and oily shadows’.
If I had one issue with Fallen (aside from the unrepresentative cover), it is that there is a vast cast of characters and plots and a lot of them are left unresolved. Characters are invested in, only to slip away from the narrative and plot lines have a tendency to peter out with little resolution. But in the end, this is Katie’s story and Katie’s alone and while the story itself may not be new, or entirely original, Mills has creates something both heartbreaking and hopeful.
As Katie tries to make sense of both her brother’s war and the struggle she has found herself in the middle of, she is facing her own struggle to take governance over her own life and ultimately her own body. As the book’s title takes on several meanings, we witness a young woman merging her passion, her intelligence and her grief to create an inner strength that will serve her in whatever decisions she makes about her future, facing the ‘thresholds to be crossed in one direction only.‘
For the final Reading Ireland Month giveaway, I have a copy of Fallen up for grabs. Simply comment below, or tweet this post to be entered. I will post worldwide and will make the draw through Random Picker on 1 April!