UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

“The Great Hunger is great novel”: Historiography and meta-fiction in Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea

Claudia Carroll

Star of the Sea has received almost no critical attention since its publication in 2004, despite its popular appeal and accumulation of literary awards. Some insightful comments have been made by reviewers of the novel and of Joseph O’Connor’s work in general, such as those by P.J. Mathews and Terry Eagleton, and O’Connor himself has been vocal about the novel’s primary themes in various interviews and essays. There has been no attempt, however, to write a sustained and in-depth criticism of the novel. The neglect of its extensive framing is a particular failing of critical literature. This study will attempt to rectify this neglect, examining some of the implications of the text as a historical fictionalization of the Great Irish Famine to analyze the relationship between history and fiction. The reading is of an interdisciplinary nature, considering the text in relation to historical writing on the famine and developments in historiography since the event, and to the broader question of the role of fiction in historical imagination. Star of the Sea interrogates how the nationalistic narrative of the famine shaped the discourse of Irish colonial history and engages with the ideas of historical revisionism. I will argue, through an examination of reader-response and intertextuality theory, that the text makes use of meta-fiction through its elaborate structure to draw the reader’s awareness to the inherent unreliability of history writing and suggests that fiction, in the place of history, may be more suitable to generating an authentic representation of the past. Finally, I conclude that in its own debt to a literary history of famine tropes and the nineteenth century novel, Star of the Sea ultimately posits that the truth of history is lost to us.

To take the events of reality and meld them into something else is not a task to be undertaken coldly or carelessly. On the question of whether such an endeavour is worthwhile or even moral, readers may wish to pronounce for themselves. Such questions must hover over any account of the past: whether the story may be understood without asking who is telling it, to which intended audience, and to what precise end.1

The history of the Great Irish Famine has long been a controversial arena. The “revisionist debate” in Irish historical academia placed strong emphasis on debunking the nationalist and emotive histories of the Famine as an entry point into a wider deconstruction of traditional polemical narratives in Irish history. Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 novel Star of the Sea, set on a transatlantic “coffin-ship” voyage from Cobh to New York in 1847, engages intimately with such developments in Irish historiography. The novel is a work of historical fiction written as a contemporaneous novelisation of true events (titled An American Abroad) by a character named G. Grantley Dixon, an American journalist and aspiring literary novelist. An American Abroad is a sort of detective novel investigating a murder Dixon himself perpetrated, designed not to expose but to cover up his guilt for the murder of main character David Merredith. This study will focus its analysis on the text’s complex structure and its engagement with the literary history of famine writings and the nineteenth-century novel and examine how the text explores whether it is possible to represent the past authentically, be it through historical or literary writing.

The Famine has been the subject of interpretive controversy since it occurred, and it is significant how these interpretations from the beginning portrayed the Famine as part of a wider story of Ireland. For Charles Trevelyan, whose infamous The Irish Crisis was published in The Edinburgh Review in 1848, the Famine was a sort of divinely-ordained final solution, the last step in a Whiggish teleology of progress designed by God to cure Ireland of its inherent ills: “The deep and inveterate root of social evil remained, and this has been laid bare by a direct stroke of an all wise and all merciful Providence.”2 Anthony Trollope, who shared Trevelyan’s views, was compelled to write to The Times in 1849, condemning the more sympathetic representations of the Famine that were appearing in the newspapers as exaggerated,3 which indicates that the two men’s attitudes did not represent a universal consensus. Terry Eagleton remarked in his review of Star of the Sea that “the ship is a microcosm of Irish society, the place where a number of different narratives converge,”4 and the passengers of the Star5 offer a selection of the main contemporaneous perspectives on the Famine. Laura Merridith, like Trevelyan, considers the Famine the inevitable result of deeper issues in Irish society, and a punishment for Ireland’s sins. Her husband David, an Anglo-Irish landlord, focuses his ire on the inadequacy of the Westminster relief response, while our narrator Dixon blames the Anglo-Irish landlord class and their failure to appease the peasantry.6

This question of “The Cause” (as Dixon titles his editorial on the issue in the New York Tribune) long proved the crux of various historiographical interpretations of Ireland’s past inevitably returned. A keystone text of the long dominant nationalist vision of Irish history, despite the fact that its author was neither an academic historian nor Irish, is Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 book The Great Hunger. Woodham-Smith portrays the Famine, and British culpability for the tragedy, as a fulcrum in the longer story of the colonial relationship between Ireland and Britain, inevitably leading to the independence movement of the early twentieth century and the complexities of the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed: “The history of what occurred then is deeply engraved on the memory of the Irish race; all hope of assimilation with England was then lost, and bitterness without parallel took possession of the Irish mind.”7 Dixon echoes her concern in Star, commenting “the Famine will poison relations between the decent and moderate peoples of those islands for a century to come.”8 In its presentation of the contemporary and subsequent historical discourse surrounding the Famine as a negative turning point in colonial history of Ireland, the text emphasises how the Famine has become hugely important in constructing a version of Irish national identity that is built on this binary, antagonistic historical narrative.

The text also meta-fictionally undermines such a narrative. Dixon, in framing Connemara farmer-turned-con-man Pius Mulvey for the death of David Merredith, draws an artificial connection between the climactic murder and the conflict between landlord and tenant, and Ireland and Britain, that supposedly characterised the Famine years. He redirects the reader’s suspicions toward Pius from the outset, closing the Prologue (titled “The Monster” in reference to Pius) with the line “[i]t could never have been guessed that he meant to do murder.”9 In Dixon’s original version of An American Abroad, in which he does not confess to the murder (Star of the Sea presents a 1916 edition that includes an added confessional prologue), he chooses to end the narrative with a quote from Captain Lockwood on Ireland: “For I dread what is growing in that country now. I fear we shall reap a venomous crop,”10 and the text of Republican ballad “Revenge for Connemara.” Thus, the text parallels the false construct of Dixon’s framing, in both the literary and colloquial sense, with nationalist historiography. These are both versions of history in which, for the sake of an agenda, past events are simplified into a potent story, with actors cast as victim and villain. This is the mythic version of Irish history, something O’Connor was preoccupied with in the writing of the novel: “What has happened in Ireland is that we’ve had history as ballad, with good guys, bad guys, heroes, and villains. History has been turned into narrative, that is, into a kind of fiction. Indeed, all history is a form of fiction, since every historian engages in selection, editing, interpretation, and so on. No truly objective history is really possible.”11

Revisionism in Irish history has set out to prove O’Connor wrong on that score. The 1960s marked a turning point in Irish historiography, with increased academic backlash against emotive or polemical histories, following the publication of R.D. Edwards and D.T. Williams’ influential The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52. Revisionism took particular issue with existing narratives surrounding the Famine: “The Great Hunger is a great novel. Discuss”12 was listed as an essay topic on a 1963 University College Dublin undergraduate history exam, referring to the response of academic historians to Cecil Woodham-Smith. Revisionism shifted focus from laying blame and de-emphasised the consideration of historical events as part of a longer narrative of national development. For T.W. Moody, writing in 1978, “The new historiography of Ireland” was a vital part of “the mental war of liberation from servitude to the myth.”13 Moody concluded of a late nineteenth-century famine that “the crisis of 1879-80 was not the climax of a long ferment of bitterness between landlord and tenants but the product of a combination of economic difficulties peculiar to those years.”14 However, while revisionism strives for an objective detachment on the part of historians in contrast to the open emotionality of polemical histories, revisionists are not without an agenda, even if it is more practical than ideological, as R.D. Edwards makes clear in her essay “An Agenda for Irish History, 1978-2018.”15 Even Moody’s definition of history, “a continuing, probing, critical search for truth about the past”16 implies, as does Roy Foster’s essay “We Are All Revisionists Now,” that our understanding of history is, and should be, ever-changing. Such a perspective champions objectivity while acknowledging that truth is an indefinite concept.

Star of the Sea may then be accurately described as a post-revisionist text, primarily in its heightened meta-fictional awareness of the difficulties of writing history. Dixon’s primary sources for the narrative of An American Abroad are incredibly problematic. It is pointed out that David’s diary (Dixon’s main source for David’s perspective) has been falsified in certain parts by David, who is a man with a great deal of reason to obfuscate, considering he is bankrupt, dying of syphilis, and trying to prevent his family from suffering the consequences of his downfall. In David’s letter to his sister, he tells her that many tenants came to pay their respects as he left his Kingscourt estate, which his diary indicates did not happen. Dixon cannot even rely upon his own memories, interrupting the Prologue through a footnote to inform us that his memory of the colour of the sails of The Duchess of Kent is incorrect. He also includes some second-hand accounts that demonstrate textbook bias, such as the racism of the Star’s mail agent and the childhood memories of an adult Jonathan Merridith. However, the most significant element of the novel’s structure is its unreliable narrator. Dixon is the ultimate unreliable narrator, discussed by Barthes as integral to an astute reading of history:

‘…the case where the utterer means to ‘absent himself’ from his discourse… The history seems to be telling itself all on its own. This feature has a career which is worthy of note, since it corresponds in effect to the type of historical discourse labeled as ‘objective’ (in which the historian never intervenes). Actually in this case, the utterer nullifies his emotional persona, but substitutes for it another persona, the ‘objective’ persona.’17

The exhaustive framing of the novel is constructed in such a way that each part of the narrative can all be traced back, ultimately, to Dixon. An American Abroad consists of sources found by Dixon in his research and printed directly (though in edited form), such as David’s diary and Captain Lockwood’s log, narrative generated from these sources, and narrative arising directly from Dixon’s own experience. Nonetheless, Dixon manages to disguise himself as a subject within his own narration. There are six sections in the novel that are from Dixon’s point of view. All are written in different modes, predominantly in the third person, and serve to distance Dixon, and his narrative voice, from the events described. He seems to have taken to heart Republican balladeer Pius’ remark on an effective ballad that ‘people needed to feel that the words had written themselves.’ The layers of narrative are so intricate that at times it is difficult to ascertain who is telling the story. The opening of Chapter 31 ‘The Guest of Honour’ states that it is composed of contemporaneous documents, the ‘true recollections of some of the passengers’, and finally Dixon’s own account of Jonathan Merridith’s birthday party. Dixon’s presence in the text is both peripheral and all-pervasive.

The text thus relates the unreliable narrator to the unreliable historical source, implicating the historian, who is generally thought of as the decoder of a complex past, in the obscuring of the truth of that past. Dixon points out his memory is impaired, his emotional involvement is evident in his affair with David’s wife Laura, and he finally admits to having a loaded agenda in relating these events. Dixon’s investigative process highlights the essential instability of the work of the historian;, how they are forced to fill in gaps and speculate, and do so according to their own needs, conscious or unconscious. Dixon represents a version of history that is influenced by his own concerns. He writes An American Abroad, a history we know is fictional, deliberately constructed to offer a certain perspective, informed entirely by his own complex mix of guilt and ambition. His epilogue, titled “The Haunted Man,” references Christine Kinealy’s essay on the impact of Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger on Irish historiography, “The Historian is a Haunted Man,” itself a reference to an essay by Woodham-Smith about the pitfalls of writing history. Dixon is haunted by what he has done not only in murdering David, but also in representing events as he has, emphasising to the audience the fictional nature of what they have just read, remarking on Lockwood’s log “of course I have selected what has been seen of the Captain’s words in order to tell the story. A different author would have made a different selection. Everything is in the way the material is composed.” The confession forces the reader to reconsider all they have read with an awareness of how Dixon “is not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series.”

Barthes argues that the masking of the narrator, the historian himself, in history writing in the name of scientific precision is as insidious as Dixon’s self-masking, as it enables the propagation of what is ultimately yet another story, another fiction, as fact. Even without such an apparent agenda as Dixon’s,  the historian can never truly be objective. Historians are also readers, and what they ultimately write is a result of their own virtual conception of the “text” of history,  as described by Wolfgang Iser: “The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realised, and furthermore the realisation is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader – though this in turn is acted upon by the different patterns of the text.” The revisionism debate in Ireland is a result of this process; each individual historian, guided by the ideologies of his generational zeitgeists, reproduces a story of Ireland that has a “positive meaning” particular to himself; a story that, in turn, the public interacts with to produce their own individual coherency regarding Ireland’s past. The protagonists of Star of the Sea are similarly influenced by their individual needs and desires. Dixon’s representation of David is a twisted way of expunging his guilt over his murder, just as his self-righteous socialism is a way of expunging his guilt over his family history in the slave trade. An exaggeration of how the historian is always guided by a particular ideology in analysing and writing history, these are people who are shown to interpret events based on their own subjective experience. In this way history, like our experience of fictional narrative, is constituted according to reader response. What we understand as history is not an accurate representation of the past, but a result of two processes: the interaction between historians and sources as they write the history, and our own as readers’ interaction with the product of this process.

O’Connor is also inevitably a reader of history, perceiving it through a filter of revisionism, post-modernism, and the new experience of life in Celtic Tiger Ireland: “The old certainties on which the dominant idea of Ireland was predicated have begun to be broken down, or at least, perceived in new ways, turned inside out, seen in different colours, translated. We can take nothing for granted now. We thought the text of our Irishness was set in stone, but it turned out to be carved in ice and its melting fast.” Just as The Great Hunger or Roy Foster’s seminal revisionist text Modern Ireland say more about the period in which they were written than those about which they write, Star of the Sea reflects this historiographical moment, rather than its historical setting. The view of history we have now is one of multiple histories; the revisionist movement has made awareness of the writing of history paramount to its rewriting. The text’s inconsistencies deliberately disrupt an illusion that attempts to impose any coherency upon a past that is not fixed, but chaotic and transitory, subject to the idiosyncrasies of source and audience. Star of the Sea ruptures this historical illusion, and in the process forms one of its own. Its consistency lies in its inconsistency, its didactic point in its carefully crafted and coherent indefinability. The choice to include the epilogue in which Dixon confesses, turning against the agenda that has informed the main body of his work, irrevocably alters Star of the Sea and our experience as readers changes as a result. O’Connor includes at the close of the novel a “Sources and Acknowledgements” section, in which he details the sources he used for research and how they are seeded into the text. He also lists the inspiration for some of the fabricated sources and highlights some specific historical accuracies and inaccuracies he has used for narrative effect. In a sense, the inclusion of a reading list constitutes an acceptance of what Dixon points out in the epilogue, that narrative is unreliable, and takes it a step further, embracing the transformation of the reader experience. The text makes the reader aware of its interpretive dynamism, pointing out that there is no single meaning to be deduced from a text but an infinite number that are generated by the sort of performance that happens when a text is read.

Yet the question remains whether it could be possible to recover the past, to produce the “authentic” or “truthful” written account of history to which the revisionists aspire. While the revisionist historians’ rejection of emotion in their historiographical philosophy was certainly warranted in light of what had come before, it has not avoided criticism. In recent decades, scholars have taken issue with revisionism for its dehumanisation of suffering, arguing that in dealing with a tragedy like the Famine, attempting objectivity is in fact a failing. James Donnelly has criticised early revisionists like Edwards and Williams for what he considers an overly passive reluctance to lay blame for the Famine in reaction to the focus on this issue afforded by nationalist histories. O’Connor is in agreement, commenting on Star of the Sea; “In a way, I tried to make the Famine a character, almost; to rescue it from the statistician, with his cool assessments of mass death.” The novel defies the revisionist version of history by foregrounding the individual human tragedy of the Famine and thus anticipates the increasing interest in affective history in the last number of years, part of a wider application of affective theory across the humanities. Margaret Kelleher, who has noted this process in Famine Studies in particular, describes in recent Irish histories of the Famine an impulse to return to the use of “narrative and story-telling tropes, usually justified as establishing greater closeness to historical events.” O’Connor has taken this one step further, proposing that fiction can in fact be the most effective method of representing the truth of the past: “There is a profound human need to remember authentically, and, for me, that requirement can sometimes be met in the intimate space of fiction.”

This inversion, in which scientific precision in history is considered reductive and fictions are considered to have greater historical “reality” is indicated in the novel by Dixon’s apparent inability to write fiction. Dixon himself relates that he had insisted on including in the first edition of An American Abroad a number of short stories based on his observations of the Famine, but these were omitted by his editor from later editions. Dixon’s fictional short stories are too authentic for his editor, who asks him instead to produce a travelogue:

“Swear off the fiction and blaze away at the facts.”

“The facts?”

“Collection of impressions from the Emerald Isle. Mist on the lakes. Jolly swineherds with queer wisdom. Pepper it up with a few pretty colleens. Do it in your sleep.”

For Dixon’s editor, the stereotypical fiction of Ireland has become “the facts,” while Dixon’s attempts to authentically represent the suffering of its people are “the fiction.” The work that is to arise from this exchange, the “non-fictional” An American Abroad, is built to deliberately perpetrate a false history. Dixon, our historian, is incapable of producing an authentic version of the past, but this is related to his mediocrity as a literary writer. He has great difficulty even producing an opening line for his proposed novel, and the extract from that novel which is featured in An American Abroad clearly bears the same agenda as his journalistic account.

Dixon’s skills as a writer are in deception, and it is a factual account that is best suited to such a purpose. The text thus raises the question as to whether a sincere writer can possiblyproduce an authentic representation of the past through fiction. 

Kelleher argues that in the absence of sustained academic focus on the Famine in the early to mid-twentieth century, fiction took the place of history in forging a popular consciousness of the event, “constructing and preserving a memory of famine, retelling the ‘story’ of the 1840s as a central event in the ‘national chronicle’ for generations of readers… shaping readers’ awareness and interpretation of the past, literature about the Famine has, to some extent, fulfilled the role of history.”31 Just as the novel is peppered with historiographical tropes of the Famine such as the coffin ship, the workhouse and the cruel landlord — what O’Gráda terms “Half truths about shiploads of grain leaving the country, about a callous and indolent landlordism”–there exists a set of images and icons about the Famine which recur in our retellings and folk memories of the Famine, forming into a sort of collective memory, that Chris Morash has noted as “a semiotic system of representations which has replaced the Famine.” Star of the Sea reproduces such an iconographic meta-narrative, making effective use of what Jonathan Culler terms literary presuppositions that “relates the story to a series of other stories, identifies it with the conventions of a genre”. A particularly popular image is that of the mother nursing an infant child. This image is reproduced by O’Connor in Chapter 24, “The Criminals,” in which David Merridith returns finally to Connemara only to encounter a silent apparition of his troubled past; Mary Duane’s waif-like younger sister, infant in her arms, who does not reacts at all to David’s presence, existing only as an object of his gaze:

And that was when he saw her.

Standing in the rusted gateway with a baby in her arms…

A ribbon was tied around her frost-white neck; a twist of dried rushes around her fragile wrist. She was humming a ballad of broken love: quietly, coldly, with graven stillness… Her eyes had a defeated, closed down look… But her hair was still beautiful: lustrous and black.

This is perhaps the most potent image of the Famine in the novel. As Kelleher points out, “the spectre of the mother and child becomes iconic,” replacing all alternate images of Famine suffering. The text makes the assumption that the reader will already be aware of the narrative and historical conventions of the Famine, and thus engages with them based on their pre-existing ideas of what is being represented: “It leads one to think of a text as a dialogue with other texts, an act of absorption, parody, and criticism… it alerts one to the artifice of literature, the special conventions and interpretive operations on which it is based.”

O’Connor also literalizes this referentiality by featuring a variety of works of literature in the text. We are reminded that “[w]hat happened took place in 1847. An important anniversary in the history of fictions” is not just the most devastating year of the Famine. Star of the Sea engages enthusiastically with literary history, mimicking many elements of the nineteenth-century novel, referencing Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and including Charles Dickens as a secondary character. However, at the forefront is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the narrative of which the novel literally rewrites. In one of the more memorable chapters of the novel, Nicholas Mulvey travels to the local big house to beg on behalf of his dying child. The sequence of events re-enacts a key scene in Wuthering Heights, in which Cathy and Heathcliff as children travel to Thrushcross Grange, look in through the window, and are set upon by guard dogs. The web of relationships around David Merridith are clearly inspired by those in Brontë’s novel. As Terry Eagleton has noted of Heathcliff, David is “oppressor and oppressed in one body… contradiction incarnate… and in the end that contradiction will tear him apart.” A bankrupt English aristocrat who speaks fluent Irish, David plays a sort of wilted Byronic hero in the novel, pathetic rather than charismatic in his addictions and obsession with the past. The cast of Star of the Sea is thus replaying roles pre-written for them, not just in history, but in literature.

The text’s rich intertextuality functions as a counterpoint to its potential role as an example of “affective history” at work. In the first instance, the works prioritised by the text endorse the traditional literary canon, undercutting the impact of its deconstruction traditional historical narratives – while Brontë, Swift, and Dickens are foregrounded, non-canonical writers such as James Clarence Mangan are literally reduced to the footnotes. The suggestion that a “superior” writer such as Brontë can somehow achieve a truth our historian Dixon cannot is undermined by David and Dixon’s combative literary discussion. It is not revealed that the novel under consideration is Wuthering Heights for the majority of the exchange, relating only Dixon’s disgust, until after David has declared it a work of genius. Both the reaction of Dixon and David as readers and our own reaction to this exchange is exemplary of how O’Connor manipulates reader expectation to create a text that works on multiple levels. The revelation that the novel in question is Wuthering Heights immediately makes Dixon appear petty; however readers more familiar with literary history will know that Wuthering Heights was derided by critics on publication, and it is David’s response, not Dixon’s, that is exceptional. Thus the novel meta-fictionally offers a demonstration of reader-response theory at work: “The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the ‘reality’ of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written. The literary text activates our own faculties…The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text…This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.” Dixon and David’s reaction to Wuthering Heights, just as our reaction to their discussion, is more revealing of their own personal histories than the text itself. The men’s difference of opinion can be taken not as a measure of any inherent artistic value due to David’s apparently superior taste in all things artistic, but only as a reflection of their own individual dispositions. Dixon derides it on the basis of his own creative process, finding it lacking (ironically) in comparison to “his own carefully constructed pieces.” David, meanwhile, has picked up on Wuthering Heights‘ Irish influences44 and taken them further, incorporating them into his own concerns about the Famine by projecting Connemara onto the Yorkshire Moors.

The text’s implication that there exists some form of high literature, that Wuthering Heights, or potentially Star of the Sea, can somehow transcend its intertextual and meta-narrative constraints to achieve some authentic form of expression, a “true” representation of the past, is therefore questionable. Star of the Sea, sincere as its intentions may be in evoking the multi-faceted tragedy of the Famine, is itself forced into dialogue with a pre-existing literature tradition of stereotypical images of the Famine, using characters it has in many ways borrowed from another novel, all the while enshrining a literary canon that has long been under scrutiny. Star of the Sea is both a literary novel and a pastiche of a canonical text, one supposedly put together from non-literary sources–“literature” here is, like history, quite literally a construct consisting of traces of the past. As Barthes suggests in “The Death of the Author,” O’Connor “can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power lies in mixing writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.” History too is subject to this intertextuality, thus historians are repeatedly forced to address in their empirical studies popular images like the coffin ship and the cruel landlord, though they have already been repeatedly debunked. The text operates as a demonstration of how history and the literary tradition are themselves as unstable and incomplete as David Merridith’s torn up, rearranged copy of Wuthering Heights, conferring ultimate power on the reader in understanding the story. Like Dixon, O’Connor cannot hope to represent the reality of the past — truth, after all, is a moving target — and just as the writer/historian is subject to their own biases and influences in their production of a story, we as readers are subject to our own.

There is a fine line between writing and being written, as Pius becomes aware: “It had only taken a moment to cross the border between victimhood and oppression.” Like O’Connor, or the historian who is forced to address again and again the tropes and images of past narratives, Dixon is at the mercy of the meta-narrative he reproduces, one that he cannot ultimately overcome. The characters of Star of the Sea are all people who, despite their best efforts to write themselves, to manipulate narrative in their own self-interest, to free themselves of the burdens of their blood–a blood tied by history to the land of their birth– are ultimately all drawn back, against their will, into the stories already written for them, prisoners of a past they can only rewrite, never write anew. The novel presents history as text, sharing the same instabilities, multiplicities and collaborative potential that fiction does, and we are made aware that the practice of the historian is that of the reader of fiction; an attempt to impose order on something unstable, transitory and indefinable, even if we are aware such an endeavor is futile. The point of the text is not so much that no writer wants to portray history authentically, but that even with that aim a writer is subject to outside forces beyond his control that shape his story according to circumstances that are societal, intertextual, and individual. The implication of this is that the reality of David’s murder, the Famine, or any historical event is lost to us, and what it meant–and means–simply depends on your perspective. To quote O’Connor, “He wasn’t a murderer. He had never killed anyone. That, said their captain, was a matter of opinion.”

 

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