If I weren’t enjoying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so much, I’d be wondering if I’m just too picky about novels.
The narrative structure of this book is complex – long passages from the purported papers of protagonist Charles O’Brien, with commentary by the “discoverer” of the papers. As the book progresses, diary entries and letters of others also get layered in. As I noted early on, I found this layering off-putting, but continued reading.
To Delaney’s credit, the various sources have distinct voices, but they can be irritating, with breathlessly grand statements about the importance of what they’re experiencing (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does the naive narrator much better). The characters also comments on each others’ personalities and writing in a way that seems to be strong-arming the reader into agreeing (Charles’ writing displays “fluid lyricism”, the discoverer of his papers tells us).
The discoverer is an amateur historian and his passages are an excuse to dump enormous chunks of Delaney’s research on the place and period into the novel. That place and period is intrinsically interesting – Ireland’s struggle for independence – but Delaney over-reaches and has Charles meet nearly every key player of the period, from Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats (who encourages him to go for the girl he loves) to Charles Parnell and the founders of Sinn Fein. It deepened my understanding of the era, but at great cost to the believability of the novel.
Since this book came out only last year, I won’t give any spoilers about the ending, but I will say I found it impossibly pat. It’s a bit underwritten (after 450 pages, what’s a few more?) and a sprawling account of Irish history, covering over a century, should not end with the feeling that every loose end has been tied up.
*No one noticed I’ve had him as Frank Dougherty in the Reading List for the past month? Oops.