Joseph O'Connor: the various narrative devices used are a linguistic triumph
Redemption Falls By Joseph O'Connor Harvill Secker, £17.99 FOR almost 20 years, Joseph O'Connor has been one of Ireland's best-known authors, although he has at times appeared to be a writer in search of a unifying theme. A glance at the 'Also by' page reveals a surprisingly long list of titles . . . five novels, two books of short stories, five non-fiction titles, three stage plays, three screenplays, and an anthology he edited . . . which would be impressive for any writer at the end of their career, let alone one still in his mid-forties. And yet, O'Connor has never made quite as broad an impact on either the Irish or international literary scene as some of his contemporaries. Until 2003, that is, and the publication of his fifth novel, Star of the Sea, a historical work focusing on the Famine and the migratory experience, which became an international bestseller.

The success of that novel has obviously proven a stimulant to O'Connor's imagination, for he has chosen to write a loose sequel to that book in Redemption Falls, a novel which employs many of the conceits of the earlier work: a wide cast, disparate narrators and dialects, photographs, interviews, court transcripts, letters, differing forms of storytelling. In doing this, it not only builds upon the inventiveness of the earlier novel, but expands upon it, energising its author and exciting its reader.

Redemption Falls begins with Eliza Duane Mooney, the daughter of two of the passengers from the Star of the Sea, beginning a walk in search of a young boy who has disappeared during the American Civil War, which is drawing to a close. "Aged no more than eight or nine when he came among our ranks, he would be a veteran of the bloodiest war ever to beknight his homeland." One is reminded of another civil war epic . . . Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain . . . which uses a similar structure, the journey of Inmam back to his sweetheart Ada, to create an internally constructed character through his encounters with various people along the way, who recognise his pain, reflect it and help him understand it. The conceit is not new . . . it echoes all the way back to Homer's Odyssey . . .

but it worked brilliantly in Frazier's novel and achieves just as much in O'Connor's, although he chooses not to focus entirely on Eliza, but to move on to the other members of his cast, governors and adulterous wives, slaves and their owners, guerrillas and revolutionaries, whose stories open the reader's mind to a landscape of a desperate, charged and volatile people.

O'Connor has discovered in these last two novels a previously untapped gift for dialect, which reveals not just the thoughts of his characters, but also their souls. A series of recollections from a slave, Elizabeth Longstreet, are so realistic they read as though they were recorded on an old phonograph, transcribed for an obscure press, forgotten and rediscovered by a contemporary doctoral student for publication.

'See ignorant people don't go no ken of the world, ' she tells us, a dignified voice crackling from beyond the grave. 'Nigger ain no colour, it the place you put to standf People don't see cause they taught not to look. They did, be a whole nother war.'

It is impossible not to get lost in the landscape of this novel, this magnificent octopus which stretches its tentacles back into the past, gathering a wild group of characters, glancing quickly from one to the other and allowing the kind of equality between voices . . .

men and women, masters and slaves, black and white . . . that wars like the Civil War were fought over.

Very few novels suggest that their author is astonished on every page Redemption Falls is one. It feels at times as if there is nothing O'Connor will not try, and if some of the devices work better than others . . . the Redemptionite field recordings are a little superfluous perhaps . . . then that is the price of experimentation and, make no mistake, the writer of a historical novel can be just as experimental, challenging and contemporary as any of the supposedly clever but all-too-disposable zeitgeist tomes of the GrantaUnder-40 types. A novel like this stands or falls on simple criteria . . . is the story so powerful the reader loses himself in it, abandons his duties in order to discover what happens next?

The answer is a resounding yes.

There will be those, of course, who see the use of so many narrative devices as a kind of trickery, a ploy to pull the reader away from the story and force him simply to admire the author's dexterity. It's what Martin Amis is so often criticised for. Similarly, there are those who feel no sympathy for historical fiction, as if contemporary themes cannot be dissected in a work set in the past.

O'Connor avoids both traps. The linguistic triumph exists to make flesh and blood of the narrators, and the pain of loss from conflict is nothing if not relevant to today.

For any reader familiar with even a few of his titles, it feels as if O'Connor has not only finally found his own distinctive voice but is exhilarated by its freedoms.

Kazuo Ishiguro has said novelists produce their major achievements in a concentrated period of their lives, from their mid-thirties to late forties. Redemption Falls is just such an achievement. The words "A Masterpiece" are too often bandied around in reviews, but they should be this novel's subtitle.