Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Review: Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916

Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916 by Marina Julia Neary

On the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, April 1916

Winner of the Readers’ Favorite Five Stars Award

41yT+awP3nL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_With Never Be at Peace, Marina Julia Neary opens up to readers’ awareness and imagination the world that existed behind the 1916 Easter Rebellion, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)-led event doomed to failure by its own participants. To be seen in this telling of events would be the backdrop of theatre consumed and surrounded by love affairs and casual assignations; jealousies and rivalries; and the rise and fall of groups and leaders of questionable sustainability.

Chief amongst these is Bulmer Hobson, an upper middle-class Quaker and Ulsterman, whose northern accent somehow is charmingly evident despite Neary’s choice not to emphasize burrs and brogues. He appears once more here in Martyrs and Traitors, which also recounts the events of the Dublin-centered insurrection, zooming in to brighten the field and all within it. Though he is the novel’s central character, the story is not told from Hobson’s point of view, but rather that of an omniscient narrator with the purpose of additionally seeing him the way others do, a narrative choice that develops Hobson’s person even further and also allows his interactions to provide greater insight into who he is.

This Neary pulls off with skill, aplomb, grace and remarkable understanding of this era’s events as well as implications that affect every moment. She brings in Helena Molony, Hobson’s first love, often to showcase the pair’s opposite approaches to their nation’s fight for freedom, not to mention the incandescence of Helena’s nature and the hue she brings to her perspectives.

“Over there,” she gasped, squeezing Bulmer’s arm.
“You’re in luck. I’m so glad he came out tonight.”
“Who’s ‘he’?”
“Mr. Pearse, the founder of St. Edna’s.”
Bulmer knew all about the school—another educational experiment, not much different from the agricultural commune in Raheny. Except, instead of vegetables, the test subjects were boys.
“Why are you whispering, Helena?”
Her pupils were dilated with indignation. “Well, because . . . his name’s not to be taken in vain.”
“Is he holy?”
“To many people, he is, believe it or not! Hobson, are you merely innerving me, or are you truly so ignorant of the man’s contribution?”
“We all contribute. Most patrons here have done something for Ireland. And yet they greet each other in their natural speaking voices. We’re not in mourning, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Pearse is in mourning at the moment, yes.”
“Let me guess . . . a magazine rejected his poem?”
“You unapologetic blasphemer.”

Despite Bulmer’s prime spotlight, Neary never allows other characters to function as mere curtain warmers. Their presence indicates the reality that no figure exists in a vacuum but the author’s treatment of them also dignifies their own roles in Hobson’s life as well as that of Ireland. Indeed, the privileged position of opening is awarded to those who kidnap Hobson before the rebellion gets going, aware that he had already added sufficient gum to their works in his efforts to prevent the entire episode from occurring on schedule, thus reducing the number of participants. Neary’s streamlining prowess reveals a great deal about their natures without consigning them to stock status, as she simultaneously shines the spotlight on Pearse—“[Dublin] was about to be demolished by a mob of self-proclaimed patriots in a collective suicide fantasy devised by a handful of IRB bullies under Patrick Pearse’s leadership”—and commences his requirement throughout the novel to work for every strand of sympathy he gets.

Hobson as a young man
Bulmer Hobson as a young man, during a trip to NYC

This is not Neary’s doing; as she herself states, she doesn’t attempt to sway readers in either direction, “[n]ot that you need to take sides to enjoy a good historical novel.” Pearce’s voice is persuasive, but she presents historical information, relentlessly researched, and even when shared through the filter of Hobson’s perceptions, trusts readers to make their own choices about this moment in time when a group of citizens reach out for the freedom that hitherto had proved so elusive.
The novel does have its light moments—in fact rather many of them. Hobson himself is presented as somewhat caustic, though his sarcasm or insensitivity—dependent on where one stands upon delivery—is characterized by his willingness to unleash it even upon himself. Moreover, while not everyone thanks him for the truth within his statements, specifically regarding IRB multiplexing that would, he warned, lead only to collapse, he issues them anyway, at great risk to himself.

“The only way to free Ireland permanently is by moral insurrection. Our men need to stop drinking and enlisting in the British army and police force. We must expand and support our own industries. I’m not suggesting that we not bear arms at all, but we must use those arms for self-defense, not staging frivolous rebellions to flaunt our reckless courage before the oppressor.”

Reader appreciation for him goes deeper because he is portrayed realistically; no one can rightfully claim Neary’s Hobson as “too perfect”; he certainly is as egotistical as any of his adversaries, and has a way with words. It may be that the logic he employs is too pure in form for casual recognition, despite its simplicity: “No man has the right to risk the fortunes of a country to create for himself a niche in history.” He demands a free Ireland, but will not accept a nation that bleeds itself in it attempts to become whole.

“A body that’s kept clean of harmful substance and engaged in wholesome activity can heal itself. In the same manner, a nation of sober, industrious citizens can claim its independence.”

As the novel moves on we catch glimpses of events also portrayed from a different angle in Never Be at Peace and as Easter Monday and the week come and go, the narrative picks up speed, reflecting the way in which everything since the last uprising has led to this, and the rapidity with which life now seems to pass us by, once something we have toiled long, arduous years for has taken its final bow.

hobson being guarded
Hobson being guarded

Apart from the initial opening giving us a glimpse into just pre-rebellion, Neary’s tale—aptly titled as one of many portraits of the time—moves along linearly, which for this complicated historical era and cast of performers works best. Post-rebellion we see more of a Hobson we might not always have preferred—he is portrayed as, amongst other descriptors, a user and a traitor—but who succeeds in capturing us as the shared heartbreak of a partitioned nation continues to cast individuals into categories (i.e. religion) that guide us in “knowing” whether we are meant to love or hate them.

For those who grow old and at this time watch their friends and fellows begin to leave this world, it surely must have been all that much more bitter. Neary’s gift of words—a vast repertoire of communication; descriptive action phrases instantly and delightfully recognizable, even when we haven’t ever seen them before; and the ability to bring laughter to our lips when we would prefer to weep—mercifully carries us through these final years, as fast as they pass by. The tenderness with which Hobson’s daughter treats him reminds us of his vulnerability—and our own—as we can at least be grateful for this solidarity amongst so much else that has been divided, personally as well as societally.

Martyrs and Traitors is an analysis as much as the telling of one man’s role in a movement and place in the world, public and private, a man once categorized by the British as “the most dangerous man in Ireland,” whose rising star really did make him dangerous to Ireland’s rulers, for had his confederates followed his lead, they may have achieved differently—to the detriment of the British. However different to that it turned out, Hobson himself might be the first to point out that what we mourn in life is eclipsed by the freedom of soaring over the sea, as a star burning, for others, its lantern of liberty.

“This novel is my hymn for all prematurely extinguished stars.”

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About the Author

this oneA self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.

You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.

Drawings by Alyssa Mendenhall

All images courtesy Marina Julia Neary

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The blogger was furnished with a copy of Martyrs and Traitors in exchange for an honest review. 

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