The Year of the French, the first novel of Thomas Flanagan,… tells an astonishing and terrible story. It is certainly the finest historical novel by an American to appear in more than a decade.
The center of Flanagan's book is a combined French-Irish military venture, with a bright beginning and a deadly close, during a single summer in 1798. Around this Irish rebellion against the British he builds up a complex, brilliantly styled narrative that plays off omniscient survey against the partial views of no less than five contemporary witnesses—a Church of Ireland minister, a Catholic village schoolmaster, a youthful English aide to General Cornwallis, a solicitor member of the Society of United Irishmen, and the solicitor's English wife. Through these marvelously evoked and distinct voices the very complicated and conflicted social realities of late 18th-century Ireland come to life. Dozens of vividly conceived characters of both sexes—Protestant and Catholic fanatics, peasants and poets, landowners and militia men, the historically noted and the nameless obscure—take the stage in his epic drama.
In 1798 in counties Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny, thousands of country-people, commanded by gentlemen republicans belonging to the United Irish movement of Wolfe Tone, and by some half-mad priests of charismatic character, fought British army regulars and well-armed bands of loyalist yeomenry. There were...
(The entire section is 532 words.)