I would not get over it. It was a small betrayal, I know, but it is the first betrayal that hurts the most. It is the first betrayal that slays innocence and leaves a scar that is never forgotten.
(from The Yellow House, page 146)
The Yellow House is a beautifully written novel about a young girl coming of age during World War I and the Irish War of Independence. Patrica Falvey first grabbed my attention with her second novel, The Linen Queen, set during World War II, but this, her debut novel, was even better. Falvey isn’t a rambling, Frank Delaney-style storyteller, but she weaves a tale of Ireland’s history and struggles that is every bit as captivating.
Eileen O’Neill spent her childhood listening to her da’s stories about the great warrior O’Neills, and with her fiery red hair, quick temper, and sharp tongue, she is determined to follow in their footsteps. Her great-grandfather, revered with an empty chair by the fire, won the family home from the wealthy Sheridan family during a card game. When she is 8 years old, her da, much to the chagrin of her mother, spends their scant funds on cans of yellow paint — creating the Yellow House that will both drive and haunt Eileen for years to come.
The death of her younger sister sparks a chain of events that tears the O’Neill family apart. Eileen is just a teenager when she is left alone with her youngest sibling to make her way in the world. Forced out of the Yellow House, Eileen takes a job at the Sheridan family’s mill, vowing to one day buy back the house of her happiest memories and reunite her family.
The issue of Home Rule pits the nationalist Catholics (like the O’Neills) against the unionist Protestants, and Eileen is at the center of the animosity in the northern province of Ulster. World War I detracts attention from the matter, but as soon as that war ends, another begins. Eileen must deal with discrimination against Catholics in Ulster and is lucky to be employed by the Sheridans, who are Quakers who haven’t taken sides (though inside the mill, it’s a different story). And after what transpired during her last night in the Yellow House, it’s no surprise that Eileen gets swept up in the Cause.
Just as Ireland is torn between independence and British rule, Eileen is torn between two men. James Conlon, an IRA fighter under Michael Collins, is just as hot-headed as Eileen. Owen Sheridan, meanwhile, is an officer in the British Army who opposes the violence and hopes to temper it. James is passionate and selfish, having been coddled by his mother his entire life. Owen is gentle and contemplative, having seen more than enough violence in The Great War.
Falvey’s characters really came to life for me. All of them are flawed and hurting, and just as Ireland changed and grew over the years, so did they. I think that’s what I love best about historical novels that cover a long stretch of time. The Yellow House is set between 1905 and 1924, a tumultuous period in Ireland’s history. Eileen gets caught up in the chaos, and through James and Owen, sees both sides of the fight. How can she not be affected? Even when I disagreed with Eileen’s actions (which was often), I could see where she was coming from. Her family was torn apart, loyalties were being tested. The Yellow House became a symbol of unity, peace, and happiness, so how could I fault her for not abandoning the dream?
The Yellow House covers so much ground; Falvey touches upon politics, war, religion, working conditions in the mills, gender roles, mental illness, and of course, family and secrets. She does an excellent job explaining the complicated politics of Ireland before and after the treaty that created Northern Ireland and the violence that ensued. (I probably would have enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way more had I read this book first.) Even the love triangle was handled in such a way that, while predictable, it didn’t overshadow the history. For its brave but blemished heroine and for personalizing Ireland’s struggle, The Yellow House is another novel that definitely will be on my list of favorite books read this year.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.