John Kelly is a person who likes tragedy (lately some writers of the books I’ve reviewed come to my blog so let’s just hope John Kelly won’t come by and be offended!) He likes tragedy, because his previous book deals with the history of the black death, the plague that killed many Europeans. His new book, The Graves are Walking, deals with the great Irish famine and its aftermath.
Even though the subject is not cheery, the book is very compelling to read. I have never read much about the Irish famine or had a very great interest in it, but I definitely couldn’t put this book down. Kelly has found a way of combining historical correctness and research with a fiction-like prose.
The book reads somewhat as a newspaper report, using very exact dates, places and numbers. Then, in some chapters it switches to what reads like a personal account, what one person saw or thought or experienced. Even though the text in itself is about the historical facts, it’s spiced with all kinds of details that make the story come alive. For example, while writing about Lord Lucan: “As a young man, Lucan had been prettier than a professional soldier ought to be, but in 1847 he was forty-seven, as old as the century: balding, thickening around the middle, and out of uniform.” Details like these make the story very personal, and makes you care for the people in it.
The Graves are Walking carefully traces how and why the Irish famine could happen. It shows (very vividly!) what Ireland looked like during those years (especially describing in gruesome detail how the sick looked and smelt. I think John Kelly also likes horror.) And then it constructs how Britain reacted, trying to reconstruct Irish society and shape it in a different form.
John Kelly definitely gives a fresh perspective to this part of history. But more importantly, John Kelly shows how historic fiction can be both accurate and thrilling. The story is about many people, not centering on one main character or protagonist. But the personal details, the small things that make you feel like you’re there, really make the story come alive. I think everyone who wants to write historic fiction should take an example from this book. Hats off to you, John Kelly! Five stars.
You can read an exerpt or buy the book here: http://us.macmillan.com/thegravesarewalking/JohnKelly#buy-the-book