(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Thomas Flanagan’s first novel, the extremely successful THE YEAR OF THE FRENCH, dealt with events in Irish history at the end of the eighteenth century. THE TENANTS OF TIME moves from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, centering on the abortive armed uprising in 1867 by a secret society of republican militants known as the Fenians, who are supported morally and financially by Irish immigrants in the United States.

Following this failure, political agitation for Irish self-determination reverted to constitutional means under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. His downfall in 1890, and his death the following year, created a vacuum in Irish political life. The novel brings its fictional retelling of history to a close at this point.

It is in its interweaving of various narratives, and its implicit recognition of each narrative’s incompleteness, that THE TENANTS OF TIME creates its substantial effect. The novel’s two principal narrators, however, the provincial schoolmaster Hugh MacMahon and the aspiring young historian Patrick Prentiss, pale in interest beside the violent and amorous activities treated in their stories. These activities take the reader from the rural squalor of an Ireland dominated by indifferent landlords to the boudoirs of the wealthy, from a Hudson Valley brickyard to the Palace of Westminster. Besides Parnell, historical figures making cameo appearances include Oscar Wilde and the painter James McNeill Whistler. There is also a list, at the end, of the 107 characters with speaking parts in the novel.

The book is far too long, even allowing for its panoramic ambitions, and its labyrinthine narrative method has drawbacks. While in many respects a formidable organizational achievement and a tribute to the author’s researches, THE TENANTS OF TIME is too much of a tapestry and too little a drama to be ultimately satisfying.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLVIII, April 2, 1988, p. 357.

Booklist. LXXXIV, November 1, 1987, p. 417.

Commonweal. CXV, June 3, 1988, p. 347.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, November 15, 1987, p. 1594.

Library Journal. CXII, December, 1987, p. 127.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 14, 1988, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 3, 1988, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, November 6, 1987, p. 59.

Time. CXXXI, January 11, 1988, p. 75.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, January 24, 1988, p. 5.