In Mountmellick, Co. Laois, where Tom Phelan grew up, there were some men who had an undeniable, yet muted presence. In their 50s and 60s, these men hobbled through the streets on wooden legs, and would stop to tell children stories of being so thirsty as to drink from a puddle that held a rotting corpse. Many of them were not in their right minds, having suffered from shellshock. A young Phelan, knowing only that these men had fought for the British in World War I, would mock their stooped postures with his friends. Unlike Great War veterans in other countries, these old soldiers had no monument in Ireland honoring their service. They were, in Irish history, either considered traitors or, at best, merely forgotten. Phelan never spoke to these damaged men, but the memory of them has remained with him. In his fourth novel, “The Canal Bridge” he takes us back to Ireland in 1914, when many decided to enlist to fight in the European war.
Told from multiple perspectives of the inhabitants of a small-town, “The Canal Bridge” pivots on the experiences of two young men who become stretcher-bearers through some of the bloodiest and most notorious battles of the war. The story of these boys is enough to fill a book itself, but Phelan goes further, placing their experiences in the context of Irish history in an attempt to recast their service in nationalist terms. With this, the narrative also reaches back to their hometown to incorporate the stories of sisters, lovers, parents, employers, and acquaintances – all of whom are fighting their own wars at home.
Beyond its important historical relevance, “The Canal Bridge” also offers an incredibly moving story of love and friendship. Best friends Con Hatchel and Matt Wrenn leave their hometown of Ballyrannel in 1913 to join the British army. Filled with dreams of adventure and escape, they enlist despite criticism from nationalist neighbors and increasing tensions that foreshadow the Easter Rising. But en route to their first posting in India, their ship is diverted back to Europe, eventually bringing Con and Matt to the fields between Somme, Passchendaele, and Ypres, where the bodies of 70,000 men were lost in mud at times six feet deep. In these fields of blood and rotting flesh, Con and Matt fight in the filth of battles fought months before. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Matt’s lover, Kitty Hatchel (Con’s sister), dwells in the memories of their childhood together along the banks of the Grand Canal. While awaiting his and her brother’s return, she defends their honor to disapproving neighbors.
With such compelling characters caught up in a fascinating moment in history, it would have been easy for Phelan to skimp on the actual writing and still have had a successful, interesting book on his hands. But what I think I appreciate most about this story is the language is just as skilled and engaging as the narrative. From recounting childhood experiences in rural Ireland to epic battle scenes, the writing is consistently stunning — ranging from haunting and horrific to beautiful and heartbreaking, yet, somehow, never over the top. Phelan’s use of metaphor is particularly fine. Thankfully, too, he knows how to temper the tragic with humor.
His incredible range — from pastoral landscapes to the battlefield, from humor to horror, from personal to global tragedy, imagining the perspectives of men and women, rich and poor — covers a lot of ground in resurrecting this lost history, doing the work of several books at once.