DERMOT BOLGER has been one of the central movers on the Irish Literary landscape since the early 1970s. Founder of the Raven Arts, now New Island Press, he published Paul Durcan’s first book and created a publishing platform for a generation of Irish poets.
Bolger has also written novels, plays, and poems and is a regular contributor to the Independent and the Times. His literary landscape is essentially contemporary north Dublin, in particular the Finglas neighbourhood. So it comes as something of a shock that the opening scene of his new novel, The Lonely Sea and Sky, is set on the Wexford Quays, in December 14 1943, and that the narrative begins with: “The Sea had claimed another victim.”
Before there is time to consider this seismic thematic shift, the reader is immersed in one of the most intriguing and gripping narratives to have surfaced for some time.
Based on his own father’s life, this tells the story of 14-year-old Jack Roche who gets a job on a tiny Wexford ship, The Kerlogue, in order to feed his mother and siblings. His father was presumed dead, his boat having been torpedoed by the Nazis, leaving the Roche family bereft.
Bound for Lisbon, the ship is an easy target for marauding U-Boats. The narrator has so far disappeared behind the story as the atmosphere on board totally permeates the reader’s consciousness to the extent s/he becomes part of the crew.
The novel is based on a real life rescue in 1943 when the Kerlogue’s crew risked their lives to save 168 drowning German sailors – members of the navy that killed Jack’s father. Forced to choose who to save and who to leave behind, the Kerlogue grows so dangerously overloaded; no one knows if they will actually survive.
One of the more exciting features of the book is the sharp repartee between the crewmen even in the most threatening situations. Bolger is in his element here, his already keen sense of dialogue getting sharper with every page. You cannot but feel the author is every bit as relaxed and engrossed in the story as his readers are.
Blurbs at the back of books are not to be trusted but the last paragraph of this one certainly rings true: “A brilliant portrayal of those unarmed Irish ships that sailed through hazardous waters; of young romance and a boy encountering a world where every experience is intense and dangerous, this is Bolger’s most spellbinding novel, and the work of a master storyteller...”
For those who love a whopping good yarn, The Lonely Sea and Sky is a must. It has echoes of Treasure Island and as a summer read, ranks with the best. It is a book the reader regrets finishing.