Thomas Flanagan is no Tolstoy and he has not written a new "War and Peace"; but "The Year of the French" is sufficiently colored by his intense and informed obsession with place and period for the reader with plenty of time (this is a long, dense novel) to be drawn deep into County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, in the year 1798. (p. 12)
Mr. Flanagan's method is mainly documents-with-dialogue, and one of his problems has been that the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798] is fairly well documented. If he had used contemporary accounts verbatim, he would not have been writing a "novel." So he cooked the books a bit. For example, one of the chief sources for what went on in Killala is a manuscript narrative by Bishop Stock, the Protestant prelate whose palace in Killala was used as a headquarters by the French. Mr. Flanagan substitutes for Bishop Stock an imaginary clergyman named Broome, whose house is likewise taken over by the French, and who contributes a similar—but not too similar—narrative. Mr. Flanagan works largely through fictional journal entries of this kind, creating an illusion of authenticity by editorial mock-documentation. Anyone who wants to sift fact from fiction will find the story of 1798 well told in Thomas Pakenham's "The Year of Freedom."
Where Mr. Flanagan scores is in his overall historical vision. He has a concept of "mental maps" that is the key to his own perspective. The Mayo...
(The entire section is 493 words.)