48. At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O’Neill (2001)

I consider At Swim, Two Boys to be the great gay romantic novel that I spent the first few decades of my reading life waiting for. When it first came out to rave reviews I was put off by the critics’ focus on the literary elements, particularly the tired old chestnuts of modernism (stream of consciousness, fractured narrative etc). In fact, these elements are sparingly and effectively used; I think the critics were just trying to ignore the more obvious point, that this is a huge, powerful narrative of homosexual love. The relationship between Jim and Doyler, two young men caught up in the turbulent events of Ireland 1915/16, sweeps all before it – politics, ‘literariness’, religion etc – to the point that the ending of the novel is absolutely unbearable. The secondary characters, particularly the louche, tortured MacMurrough, drive the plot along with a demonic energy and humour. At Swim, Two Boys came out at a time when ‘Oirishness’ was big business in the publishing world, but it stands far above most of those dreary pratings. I’m saddened by the fact that Jamie O’Neill has never written another book, but I guess when you’ve achieved something as good as At Swim, Two Boys you don’t have that incentive to ‘do better next time’.

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