I bought this book over two and half years ago while visiting the Dublin Writers Museum because of course I had to leave with at least one book by an Irish author, and Joyce is scary (I also participated in a Literary Pub Crawl of Dublin during that vacation though I think I preferred the one I did in Edinburgh). Anyway, for some reason I never quite got around to reading any of the books I bought on that trip, and I'm trying to both reduce my stack of books, and read at least one book related to the Great War every month this year for the 100 year anniversary, so this seemed like a perfect choice. Overall, it was a solid book - I can't say I regret leaving it to sit for so long but I certainly enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I also discovered that it's actually the first part of a trilogy so instead of reducing my list of "books to read" by one, I've now added two!
Stephen Ryan is one of very few students at Trinity College in Dublin to be there on a scholarship. Being from a working class background, he stands out in this environment, and his younger brother Joe thinks he's a sell out. It's 1914, Ireland is full of debates about home rule and independence, and Europe is on the brink of war. Despite having only a year left of school before receiving his diploma in mathematics, Stephen signs up as soon as war is declared, becoming an officer in the King's Army. Lieutenant Ryan ends up in Gallipolli for his first assignment, and as chance would have it, is back in Dublin just in time to witness the Easter Rebellion of 1916 before embarking onto France. As a result, the novel is able to portray the Western Front and the issues people had there, as well as explore important events in Irish history and politics of the time.
Honestly, I was a bit surprised by some of the novel because one upperclass character seemed to be in the process of being developed as the traditional nemesis but that rivalry was rather quickly squashed. I actually liked that it didn't go the traditional road, but I also feel like there was enough left open about the character's past that it may be addressed in future installments. I also enjoyed some of the supporting cast, such as Lilian Bryce, the only woman in the math program and Ryan's slowly developing love interest, and his best friend. However, parts of the novel seemed a bit superficial, and it jumped around quite a bit at points. I don't think describing battle action is the author's strength because I didn't feel all too oriented as to what was going on during the fight scenes. This isn't a big surprise since the novel covered over three years of time in three separate countries and was only around three hundred pages long.
However, while I thought the novel was mostly solid if not exceptional, I thought the last few pages which address PTSD - they even include a session with Dr. Rivers who was also featured in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration - were its strongest. Maybe I should see the fact that I was most interested in that part as a sign that I need to finish the Regeneration trilogy this year, too.