The novel follows three cross-sections of Irish-Jewish life throughout the last century, starting with Lithuanian eight-year-old Ruth in 1901 and continuing until, almost, the present day. In 1958, there’s Shem, an 18-year-old mute committed to a Catholic sanatorium where he befriends an elderly double-amputee named Alf. In 2013, an Irish obituary writer named Aisling is faced with an ultimatum by her Jewish boyfriend, who threatens not to marry her if she doesn’t convert to Judaism. Dissimilar at first, each character soon confronts similar crises; namely, a reconciliation between their familial identity and one that is thrust upon him or her by a compromising set of circumstances, be it love or Zionism.
The legacy of diaspora runs throughout the novel, culminating in Aisling’s present-day narrative, after generations of characters of both Jewish and Irish descent find their families pulling them in a multitude of directions, migrating to England, Palestine, and the United States, among other places. Irish culture’s deep ties to Catholicism means that religion is a crucial facet of being “Irish,” accounting for much of the isolation of the novel’s Jewish characters and suspicion toward the native-born Irish. The conflict of being simultaneously Jewish and Irish is most difficult for the novel’s Zionist characters, who find they can no longer stomach their duality.
Though Ruth did not choose to live in Ireland, she soon finds herself feeling a certain kinship with the Emerald Isle, her new home:
Tateh once told her that instead of knowing a thing off by heart, some languages say that it is “written on your spine.” So Ruth sighed for that now, longing for Ireland to be written onto hers. Because despite how she called it home, despite how she spoke English and read the papers and knew every scrap of local news, really this was the first time she had seen the country properly — the maps finally come true.
While Gilligan shares a name with her heroine, Gilligan’s naming choice likely draws from the Biblical character of Ruth, who famously converts to Judaism. Though Gilligan’s Ruth is already Jewish, she faces a similar choice in her relationship to Ireland. When it is time for Ruth to make her own choice about whether to join her mother in Palestine, she reflects on the power of the Irish lore that has become a rooting force for her, in place of a sense of homeland. Her mother says: “Home? Do not be stupid, my girl — you do not even know the meaning of the word […] No matter how many stories you learn about it.”
Storytelling provides a grounding, communal force for each of these wayward, spiritually homeless souls. Shem, though mute, finds himself a storyteller as the record keeper of Alf’s rambling memories, and Aisling works as an obituary writer, telling the stories of people’s lives. Gilligan is keen on depicting the generational impact these stories can have as they are passed from the lips of one to another, performing and creating the only sense of ongoing identity that any of them might have.
The three stories — Ruth’s, Shem’s, and Aisling’s — are told in alternating chapters, and though at first this can lead to confusion (rather anomalously, Ruth’s chapters begin with a year, Shem’s a month, and Aisling’s with a day of the week), the clarity and uniqueness of the three voices quickly provide grounding for the reader. Ruth’s sections are buoyant and full of optimism, like her belief in her father’s fortune as a playwright, even in demoralizing moments; like when she sees the pages of her father’s play in a puddle and dreams of it still coming to the stage: “But even in the blackness the sheets still glowed bright white, gaudy beneath the moon, the flap of them almost like the sound of a thousand winds.” Shem’s life in the sanatorium is filled with his brooding meditation and is much slower and contemplative, to match his fixated mind. Aisling’s chapters match her cynicism and ambivalence toward her Irish identity. Her love for it shows through in certain moments, like when she describes an Irish post-funeral get-together as “another round of sandwiches and stories down the pub, Guinness-licked and gorgeous on the tongue.”
The implicit promise of these interlocking narratives is that they will build separately until they intersect in an overarching and inevitable conclusion, one that was, upon closer inspection, laid out from the first page. Gilligan plays her cards close to the chest; the first inklings of connection come perhaps halfway through the novel, and while she continues to hint at some reveal that will pull all three tightly together, the story ultimately falls short, instead relying on happenstance and tenuous conjecture from characters who were little more than acquaintances. In the end, it’s easy to wonder how the two characters the furthest apart, Aisling and Ruth, are connected or influenced by each other at all.
The complex narrative is bogged down by some unnecessary distractions, such as the brief appearance of footnotes to describe marginalia Aisling notices in a book she’s been given, or Gilligan’s penchant for interrupting dialogue, which at once builds tension but is done to the point of distracting the reader and even causing confusion. When Aisling and her boyfriend get into an argument, there are almost no full sentences:
“Well, I mean, you’ve at least been … playing along …”
“Asking questions, doing research …”
“Noah, I’m a journalist — that’s what I —”
“… weren’t even going to go home for Christmas.”
This spare form, leaving whole parts of conversations unsaid, builds drama, mimicking the way that, in the heat of argument or distress, irrelevant phrases drop away. Gilligan’s characters focus on the heart of what’s being said (or unsaid). However, in less successful moments, the bits of broken dialogue can make it difficult to distinguish a character’s desires or what he or she is trying to say at all, such as when Shem’s mother comes to tell him that she’s moving to Palestine without him unless he gets better: “Shem, he says … he says if you’re not … if you don’t.” Eventually, not letting the characters stand behind their full sentences risks losing the reader’s faith in the story’s conversations itself.
For a story centered on a specific and small subset of people, like Irish Jews, the novel rarely feels esoteric. Though, there are still inelegant moments in the at times anthropological breakdown of Jewish practice and culture (Gilligan herself is Irish, though not Jewish), such as when Aisling is boning up on her boyfriend’s life as a chosen person:
She read about the rededication of the Second Temple and the Maccabean Revolt; about how there was only enough oil for the menorah in the temple to burn for one night, but how it somehow lasted eight — a miracle of light and love against the odds.
The life and times of Irish Jews, while a somewhat obscure topic, can at least claim perhaps the most famous hero in Irish literature: Leopold Bloom, of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Shem, the nascent writer, shares his name with a character from Finnegans Wake, also a writer, and the richness of Irish literature and its legacy crops up wonderfully throughout the story. At one point, Alf recalls cutting peat from a bog for fuel during the “Emergency” of World War II, Gilligan’s sly call to Heaney’s masterful poem, “Digging.” While Heaney’s poem is about digging into his personal history, by tapping into the same cultural legacy, Shem and Alf claim their Irish history and attest to their own pride of place. The opening lines of “Digging,” “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” are echoed a moment after Shem finishes working on Alf’s story: “I hid the jotter away, same as ever. But this time I held on to the pen; took it with me to bed. In my hand it felt snug and tight, the butt of it hard like I imagined a gun.” History, the very ink of it, is a powerful thing.
Ultimately, the connections between the three threads, the ties that are supposed to bind Ruth, Shem, and Aisling together, feel tenuous and faint. While the thematic struggle of identity, and Irish-Jewish identity at that, is palpable and moving throughout, less so is the motivation for the individual characters, whose ties to each other are almost coincidental, lacking the sort of unavoidable fate such a novel promises to build up from the outset. Instead, the story trends toward happenstance, at best. Yet the stories that connect these generations, these cultures, to themselves and to each other are superlative in their legacy and strength. Gilligan’s story steps back from any universal pronouncement about the self, or any resolution for its complexity, and though it may be a burden to feel contradictory (such as being both Irish and Jewish), there is satisfaction and wisdom in the attempt at bridging such a divide.