Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rebel Sisters by Marita Conlon-McKenna

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 8, 2017

With the threat of the First World War looming, tension simmers under the surface of Ireland. Growing up in the privileged confines of Dublin’s leafy Rathmines, the bright, beautiful Gifford sisters Grace, Muriel and Nellie kick against the conventions of their wealthy Anglo-Irish background and their mother Isabella’s expectations. Soon, as war erupts across Europe, the spirited sisters find themselves caught up in their country’s struggle for freedom. Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett – both leaders of 'The Rising' – while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and bravely takes up arms, fighting alongside Countess Constance Markievicz in the rebellion. On Easter Monday, 1916, the biggest uprising in Ireland for two centuries begins. The world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear will be torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy.

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Birth of the Irish Republic
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but my decision to read Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Rebel Sisters was prompted by my frustration with Elizabeth J. Sparrow’s The Irish Tempest. The Easter Rising was the first armed action of the Irish revolutionary period and I didn’t feel the latter novel treated the material with the respect it deserved so I went looking for something that would.

Did Rebel Sisters fill the void? The answer to that depends on your point of view. The book offers a much more detailed account of the Rising and the cast feels far more authentic than Sparrow’s, but I’m not above admitting that the structure and tone of Conlon-McKenna’s narrative made it difficult to get lost in.

Rebel Sisters is told from four alternating perspectives, but the author failed to create appropriate balance between Grace, Muriel, Nellie, and Isabella. The end result left significant disparities between the four narrators and I ultimately found myself questioning the author’s decision to utilize so many voices. Each character is interesting in her own right, but I think the novel would have been stronger if Conlon-McKenna had narrowed her scope to only two of the sisters and regulated their mother to a supporting role.

Conlon-McKenna’s prose is straightforward, but it lacks the fiery passion and patriotism of the men and women who inspired it. The research is sound, but the story is light on theme and doesn't pack the punch one would expect from revolution era fiction. The narrative also doesn't afford adequate closure and while I appreciated what Colon-Mckenna attempted to do with the novel, I can't help feeling she bit off more than she could chew when she committed herself to the project.

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She was afraid for Joe, afraid for all of them. Was Nellie with them? How could they possibly expect to defeat the large numbers of the British army garrisoned in barracks all across the city? They would be wiped out. She stayed watching from the window, frozen with dread at what might happen once the army launched a proper attack on them.
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