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Joseph O’Connor. Star of the Sea

Alexandra POULAIN
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Joseph O’CONNO. Star of the Sea. Harcourt, 2003, 401 pp., €26.29, ISBN 0-15-100908-2, ISBN 0-15-602966-9.

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1It has become a commonplace to note that although the Irish Famine was a major cataclysm, and one which contributed to the complete reshaping of Ireland in the late nineteenth-century, it has not often found its way into Irish literature – arguably because it was simply too traumatic for representation: as Terry Eagleton puts it, “the events strains at the limits of the inarticulable.” In Star of the Sea, however, the young Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor not only vividly conjures up the memory of the disaster out of which modern Ireland was born, but produces an acutely contemporary piece of experimental fiction disguised as a quaint Victorian historical novel.

2The eponymous, antiphrastically-named “Star of the Sea” is a ramshackle coffin-ship making its final voyage across the Atlantic in the last months of “black ’47”. On board are a handful of first-class passengers, including an American journalist (the novel’s chief narrator), an impoverished syphilitic Irish landlord with his family and their servant Mary, and an enigmatic maharajah, as well as some few hundred miserable wretches travelling steerage in appalling conditions, whose deaths are recorded day after day in the log-book of the fatalistically-minded captain. Among the survivors is a Pius Mulvey, known on board as “the ghost”, a would-be balladeer and a reluctant murderer. Their stories unfold and intertwine as the voyage progresses and Mulvey grapples with an insoluble moral dilemma: make one more innocent victim on board before the ship reaches New York and save his own neck, or bring upon himself the wrath of a mysterious revolutionary organisation.

3The novel parodies Victorian fiction, and runs through the whole gamut of genres and styles of the period, from realistic fiction to romance, from historical novel to gothic thriller and murder mystery. O’Connor pays homage to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, published that year under the androgynous pseudonym Ellis Bell – in the novel the narrator himself is suspected of having authored the book, and gladly entertains the suspicion. The novel’s use of multiple narrators and embedded narratives indeed recalls Brontë’s innovative narrative technique. However, the scope of the social issues and strata it addresses, the constant shift between comedy, pathos and suspense, and the truculence of its characters is even more reminiscent of Dickens, who actually puts in a burlesque appearance as an amateur antiquarian who encounters the starving Mulvey in London’s East End and buys him a meal in exchange for “authentic” songs and stories. As in Dickens’s novels, one constant source of enjoyment is to watch the author toying with clichés and stereotypes and transcending them, turning stock characters into three-dimensional, complex creatures and reinventing the hackneyed situations of Victorian fiction.

4The novel is distinctly contemporary, however, in its subtly ironic use of hindsight. Conjuring up swiftly forgotten memories of a not-so-distant past, O’Connor addresses Celtic Tiger Ireland, and reminds her that today’s immigrants flocking to its shores are not so different from the million wretches who fled the Famine and sought a hypothetical Promised Land across the ocean. Pondering the fates of the steerage passengers, the idealistic American journalist reflects: “And it is all so bitterly unmerited. For as truly as the night comes down on every day, if the world were somehow turned downside-up; if Ireland were a richer land and other nations now mighty were distressed; as certain as I know that the dawn must come, the people of Ireland would welcome the frightened stranger with that gentleness and friendship which so ennobles their character.” (275) As Ireland prospered in the late nineties, it suddenly discovered it had the same potential for racism and rejection of the other as any modern nation. Star of the Sea refuses amnesia and offers a deeply moral, though never moralizing, reflection on national memory and responsibility.

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Référence électronique

Alexandra POULAIN, « Joseph O’Connor. Star of the Sea », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/653

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Alexandra POULAIN

Université Lille 3

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