Ulster, 1981. Not history’s most gentle moment.
Ireland, 80 CE. Not history’s most gentle moment, either.
Of course, the gentle moments are rarely interesting.
Bog Child centers around Fergus as his life centers around his A-Levels¹, the Troubles², and, increasingly, the preserved body of a girl he found in the bog. Fergus is being pulled every which way, caught between the knowledge of his brother on a hunger-strike in jail; his growing friendship with a Welsh soldier on border-duty; his own desire to get out of Ireland and into Medical School; the companionship of the archeologist who comes to investigate the mysterious first-century bog body, the archeologist’s daughter, and his dreams of the girl in the ground.
The book’s treatment of the Troubles is very strong. The sense of entrapment is palpable, as is the heady mix of absolute love for Ireland and absolute despair over what’s happening in Ireland. Fergus and his family and friends are all staunchly Republican³, but it’s fascinating to see the shifting lines of commitment and ideas. A lot is left unsaid, but that’s as it should be – instead of being told, we’re right there with Fergus as he has to deal with the political climate and his family’s role in it.
Into all this is tied the story of Mel, the bog child, told through dreams and visions had by Fergus. I can’t help but think the book would have been stronger without the dream plot device, either with the flashbacks simply existing as their own thing between Fergus chapters or even entirely without them – they’re overshadowed by Fergus anyway. I’m also not without qualms as to the historical accuracy; I didn’t see any glaring issues, either with the narrative or the archeology, but there were a few things which had me straining to remember details of bog people, Iron Age Ireland, and ancient Irish, Celtic, and Germanic art. While there’s a brief historical note on the hunger strike, there’s nothing about the subjects covered in the flashbacks, and the only sources she sites are a BBC documentary and a book from 1969. Basically, I’m withholding judgment on the historical accuracy until I’ve had a chance to run it by the friend who actually took Irish archeology – much of what I know I learned from helping her study.
But it’s not Mel’s book, it’s Fergus’s. And Fergus’s book is worth a read.
¹Advanced-Level examinations which UK students need to pass to go to college. Think NEWTs, only without the magic.
²The violence and chaos in Northern Ireland from the 1960s through 1998. The Catholic minority of Ulster was primarily Nationalist and wanted to join the (primarily Catholic) Irish Republic, while the Protestant majority was primarily Unionist and wanted to stay part of the United Kingdom. Cue bombings, riots, and hunger strikes.
³In the Irish Nationalist sense, not the American Right-Wing Conservative sense.