Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oonagh by Mary Tilberg

This is one of those books that's hard to review because you want readers to experience the book--called an "act of narrative resurrection" by another reviewer--without knowing too much in advance.

The origin of this book is as fascinating as the book itself: Tilberg was reading Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, and a tiny bit of paragraph kindled an idea. Moodie mentioned the shivaree of a black man (a barber, an escaped slave from America) and his white wife, a pretty Irish girl he'd "persuaded to marry him." Moodie said nothing else about this couple in the book, just a few sentences on a page, but they rooted in Tilberg's imagination; she had to know more.

Tilberg sought out the remnants of the Underground Railroad. She scoured newspapers for mentions of this strange couple. From a scrap--a barber's ad--and her wider research of their likely histories, Tilberg has created a love story spliced from Chauncey's escape and survival and Oonagh's emigration from Ireland just before the cholera epidemic in the early 1830's.

The book has left me feeling sad; I wasn't prepared to be done with Chauncey and Oonagh, yet. I wanted to know Oonagh's family better; I wanted to know more about her sisters and brother who didn't come to Canada. Mostly, though, I wanted there to be more to Oonagh and Chauncey's story.

My only two (tiny) complaints:
  1. Oonagh's apparent selective obliviousness to the extent of racial tensions in the town defied belief at times.
  2. The last chapter felt more like a history lesson and less like part of the narrative that had been flowing so smoothly before. I would have liked one more chapter before the last one to act as a bridge to the future, more mature Oonagh's mindset; I wasn't ready to be there yet when I arrived at the 30-year-jump.
Though my immigration experience to Canada has been very different from Oonagh's, her dreams and desires and emotions are universal. Even people who have never gone far from home and family will ache and laugh, celebrate and mourn with her.

I haven't yet read
Galway Bay, but I'd expect that those who enjoyed it would also be well advised to add Oonagh to their wish list, though the only common thread may be the Irish immigrant narrators and readers' love of thoroughly researched, well written historical fiction.

Many thanks to Cormorant for sending a review copy.


Zibilee said...

Great review! I am putting this one on the list, thanks!

Serena said...

Sounds like a good book to me...I loved Galway Bay. Off to put this on my good reads tbr list. Thanks for a great review.

bermudaonion said...

I loved Galway Bay, so I'm adding this to my wish list.