You may have read the hype. Irishman Jamie O'Neill was working as a London hospital porter when his 10-year labor of love, the 200,000-word manuscript of At Swim, Two Boys, written on a laptop during quiet patches at work, was suddenly snapped up for a hefty six-figure advance. For once, the book fully deserves the hype.
In the spring of 1915, Jim Mack and "the Doyler," two Dublin boys, make a pact to swim to an island in Dublin Bay the following Easter. By the time they do, Dublin has been consumed by the Easter Uprising, and the boys' friendship has blossomed into love--a love that will in time be overtaken by tragedy. O'Neill's prose, playing merrily with vocabulary, syntax, and idiom, has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but in his creation of comic characters (such as Jim's pathetic but irrepressible father) and in the sheer scale of his work, Charles Dickens springs to mind first. But Dickens never wrote a love story between young men as achingly beautiful as this.
In the character of Anthony MacMurrough, who is haunted by voices as he pursues his illegal and dangerous desire for Dublin boys, O'Neill has created a complex and fascinating center to his novel, rescuing the love story from mawkishness, and allowing a serious meditation on history, politics, and desire. For as Ireland seeks its own future free of British government, so Jim, Doyle, and MacMurrough look back to Sparta to find a way to live. As Dr Scrotes, one of MacMurrough's voices, commands:
Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literature for words they can speak. In this massive, enthralling, and brilliant debut, Jamie O'Neill has indeed done just that: provided a nation for what Walt Whitman calls, in O'Neill's epigraph, "the love of comrades." --Alan Stewart, Amazon.co.uk