A New York Times Notable Book for 2002
Synopses & Reviews
Set during the year preceding the Easter Uprising of 1916 -- Ireland's brave but fractured revolt against British rule -- At Swim, Two Boys
is a tender, tragic love story and a brilliant depiction of people caught in the tide of history. Powerful and artful, and ten years in the writing, it is a masterwork from Jamie O'Neill.
Jim Mack is a naïve young scholar and the son of a foolish, aspiring shopkeeper. Doyler Doyle is the rough-diamond son -- revolutionary and blasphemous -- of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the nude, the two boys make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter of 1916, they will swim to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves. All the while Mr. Mack, who has grand plans for a corner shop empire, remains unaware of the depth of the boys' burgeoning friendship and of the changing landscape of a nation.
"The hunger for liberation...gnaws at the big heart of this young Irish writer's engrossing, often very moving debut....Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O'Neill's warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate: altogether, his first is the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[A] wonderful novel....[I]n this novel the cause of Ireland and the cause of gay people fuse with a complete lack of apology or embarrassment....Jamie O'Neill has written a dangerous, glorious book: the kind that is likely to make absolutely anyone cry and laugh in public places." Michael Pye, The New York Times Book Review
"This powerful debut novel...has a truly exhilarating style as the author rhythmically bends language that is, at times, of his own making....Over the many pages of his novel, O'Neill creates a stunningly vivid world in a language all his own." Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist (Starred Review)
"Possessing great humor and an elegiac quality that makes one mourn lost youth and poor Ireland alike, O'Neill's saga achieves a kind of richness of scope and ambition that makes one reluctant to come to its tragic and inevitable close." Robin Hemley, The Chicago Tribune
"[A] work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement that transcends any genre label a critic might be foolish enough to impose on it....[O'Neill's] writing is rich and allusive (think Joyce, Wilde, Flann OBrien), his language is blisteringly exuberant, and his vision is...acute enough to create one of the most psychologically accurate and moving love stories in recent literature. In short: wow. (Grade: A)" Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly
"Expressions such as 'a slice of the ignore' fill its 576 pages with a love of language thats infectious. Slow to start but ultimately engaging, At Swim, Two Boys is as playful as it is powerful." Seattle Times
"An ambitious and absorbing novel. What elevates At Swim, Two Boys is the intensity of its central love story (an honest and moving one, whatever your orientation) and the vivid reality of the novels characters. There's undeniable passion and eloquence that may have many of the custodians of the Irish literary tradition spinning dizzily in their graves." Bruce Allen, The Boston Globe
"A grand novel filled with allusions, a rollicking, language-rich stew bursting with delight." Michael Giltz, The Advocate
"As a tender coming of age tale, vivid cultural portrait, and a story of courage in love and in war, this remarkable achievement lives up to its literary lineage and should establish Jamie O'Neill as a novelist of the first rank. By turns delightful and heartbreaking, At Swim, Two Boys is a breathtaking ride." Elizabeth Flynn, Lambda Book Report
"The great novel needs more than poetry and puns. It needs worthy and recognizable characters, it needs a worthy plot line, and it needs artistry in love not only love between the characters, but love between author and characters. We have them all here, and I'm at a loss how to convey the grandeur of lively, often very funny dialogue along with a sheer narrative beauty." Lolita Lark, RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
"Jim is too naive and Doyler too politically sophisticated for their years, while McMurrough is typecast as an Oscar Wilde figure. Still, these are rich characterizations, and together with the playfully rendered Irish dialect they outweigh the book's imperfections. O'Neill also offers gorgeous descriptions of the Dublin environs and remarkable details of the period." Library Journal
"The secret is out, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde had a child: his name is Jamie O'Neill, and his novel is a big, character-filled Edwardian triple-decker." Felice Picano, author of Like People in History
"Reading this book is like swimming itself. You have to take a deep breath first, and plunge yourself into an alien element but as you make your way forward, it dictates quiet, ecstatic rhythms of a heightened reality. It's a book in which the full range of human passion is implied: a highly erotic love story that manages to be neither anatomically specific nor euphemistic; a narrative about politics and patriotism that avoids jingoism or sentimentality. There is a gentleness, a loveliness here that is extremely rare in modern fiction." Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
In the tradition of Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" comes a gloriously ambitious and resonant novel that transports readers to Dublin in the year preceding the Easter uprising--a pivotal time in Irish history and in the lives of two very young men from different backgrounds.
About the Author
Jamie O'Neill is the author of two previous novels, Disturbance and Kilbrack, or Who Is Nancy Valentine? He was brought up and educated in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, then lived in England, and has now returned to Galway, in Western Ireland. For the past ten years O'Neill worked as a night porter in a London psychiatric institution while writing and researching At Swim, Two Boys.
Reading Group Guide
READING GROUP GUIDE
At Swim, Two Boys
1. The Irish have long been a storytelling people, and Jamie O'Neill is certainly no exception. He brings to life the Irish struggle for independence with an intensity and an honesty that is staggering. In what ways do you find O'Neill's writing to be reminiscent of that of other great Irish authors, both contemporary and classic? What techniques may O'Neill have borrowed from authors such as James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Oscar Wilde, and even Frank McCourt?
2. Language, both in the narrative and, especially, in the dialogue between characters, makes this a rich and sometimes challenging read, but it also pulls us into the world of Ireland in a way that nothing else could. Why is language so significant in this novel? Discuss the ways that O'Neill wields words to shed light on individual characters and to illuminate the underlying forces that shape the tumultuous Ireland of the early 1900s.
3. Focusing on Aunt Eva, Aunt Sawney, Nancy, and even MacMurrough's Nanny Tremble, look at the different things women stand for in this novel. In what ways do their representational roles -- as church, as Ireland, as universal mother -- clash? Do they ever exist outside of these compartmentalized spheres? Also, does the novel suggest that women are above the weakness of the flesh, or that they are saintly beings? Is the author toying with the ideal of the Christian woman (holy and untawdried)?
4. Passion, lust, and love manifest themselves in very interesting ways in this story. While Jim and Doyler share a free and beautiful passion for one another, Brother Polycarp and MacMurrough are at times like sexual predators; one could almost say that they fall perfectly into the stereotypical homosexual deviant role that society perpetuates. To what extent do you think MacMurrough's predatorial behavior is a fulfillment of the expectations that society has for him as a gay man? Discuss the ways in which his love and desire for other men become subverted into lust and carnal desire though the lens of society's eye.
5. MacMurrough compartmentalizes his desires, his intellect, and his feelings of sympathy, empathy, and love in the voices of Dick, Scrotes, and Nanny, respectively. Are we to believe that he is literally schizophrenic? Or do these voices (and the way that they seem to meld into one voice by the end) point to larger themes?
6. Similarly, what instigates the transformation that MacMurrough undergoes throughout the course of the novel? Why does he seem, at least by the end, somehow freed from his self-hatred and ready to experience love again in the most selfless form? How much of this change can be attributed to Jim, who has a great capacity for love?
7. Symbols play a role of great importance in this story, and whether it is a flag, a stripe, a medal, or a religious emblem, the sacredness of these objects divides and unites the characters time and time again. What is it about the nature of symbols that makes them so powerful to these people -- and to all people, for that matter? Why, for instance, does Doyler's red badge mean so much to him? Do you think symbol worship in this novel verges on idolatry? Is it dangerous?
8. By the end of the novel, Jim seems set on more fighting. How do you feel about his choice to continue the fight? Are you left with a feeling of disillusionment? Do you think the author is making an overarching statement about war?
9. This novel, like some other covertly or overtly gay novels written in the twentieth century (The Well of Loneliness, Maurice, Giovanni's Room), ends in tragedy. Is this simply the plight of the gay character in modern literature? Is the reunion between Jim and Doyler in the last pages of the novel enough of a happy ending to make At Swim, Two Boys a novel of triumph rather than tragedy?
10. We watch as the characters in this novel struggle with their feelings of desire in a society that will not even recognize it. (Think back to the scene in which Jim tries to confess to the priest.) Discuss the ways in which Jim, Doyler, and MacMurrough try to rediscover a hidden history through the stories they tell one another about the Spartans. Why is having this history so significant to them? How does the notion of queer sexuality recycle, revise, and challenge traditional perceptions of gender in this novel?