Patricia Falvey makes a strong fiction debut with The Yellow House, a stirring romantic drama set during the nascent period of "the troubles" that tore Ireland apart through the 20th century.
The book tells the first-person story of Eileen O'Neill, whom we first meet as a child in Ulster, epicenter of the conflict between the British rule-supporting Protestants and the Home Rule-supporting Catholics. Eileen's idyllic childhood, set in the bright house of the title, comes apart when she loses, in quick succession, both parents (one to desertion and madness, one to death) and two siblings.
Left with her younger brother to care for, she goes to work in a linen factory, attracting the attention of the owner's son, Owen Sheridan, a gentle Quaker drawn into the political upheaval when he becomes a British military officer.
Eileen also finds herself attracted to James Conlan, a rough man on the other side of the battle. "His hand was rough on my arm, as if a fire seared my skin," she says. "I thought of the warm glow Owen Sheridan's touch always caused. Just now I liked the fire more."
As the book progresses, and the animosities between the Protestants and the now fully formed Irish Republican Army grow ever bloodier, Eileen feels herself continually split, with conflicts of love, lust, compassion and loyalty running roughshod over her soul. The early scenes of Eileen's and James' lawless exploits for the Catholic resistance make for thrilling reading, and her gradual realization that lust doesn't necessarily lead to long-lasting contentment is both realistic and piercingly sad.
Falvey staunchly declines to make easy division between the good guys and bad guys, instead trusting the reader to appreciate the complexities born of neighbor turned against neighbor and brother against sister. The book serves as a provocative reminder of the tangled strings of family, war and familial war, and also (although it's being marketed as literary fiction) as a splendid example of old-fashioned, minimal-bodice-ripping romance.