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Irish Lady by Jeannette Baker
(Pocket, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-671-01734-9
****
It is a brave author who dares to write a romance about "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. I must admit to some trepidation when I picked up Jeanette Baker's book. Could there be my treasured happily ever after in a novel that deals realistically with one of the contemporary age's great tragedies? The answer is yes and no. Yes, our hero and heroine survive to live and love; no, there is no relief from the oppressing and ancient conflict that has wracked my own family's ancestral home.

Let me begin by noting that Baker's book is quite ambitious in scope and creative in structure. Indeed, she interweaves her contemporary story of a successful London barrister who throws over her career to defend her childhood sweetheart, a Sinn Fein leader who is accused of murdering a prominent British politician with the tale of her 16th century ancestor, come back to aid her descendants.

The heroine is Meghann McCarthy, Lady Sutton, the widow of a well-known British barrister and herself a rising star in the legal profession. Few know that she is the granddaughter of an Irish patriot executed after the Easter Rebellion or that her parents were the victims of the sectarian struggle in Belfast when she was only ten. Meghann has chosen to flee the bloodshed and the killing.

The hero is Michael Devlin, a leader of Sinn Fein, a man of great gifts who has devoted his life to the struggle to gain for his fellow Catholics what so many desire an end to the Protestant/British control over the Six Counties. When Michael's mother Annie calls Meghann and asks her to come to Belfast because her help was desperately needed, Meghann does hesitate. Michael had saved her life that awful day twenty-five years earlier and the Devlin family had unhesitatingly taken the grieving orphan into their home. Moreover, Michael had been Meggie's first and great love. He had wanted to marry her but she fled because she could not live with his choice of joining the IRA.

Intertwined with Meghann's and Michael's story is the tale of Nuala O'Donnell, daughter of the 16th century Irish leader the O'Neill and wife of a great Irish hero, Rory O'Donnell. Nuala has returned to watch over Meghann and Michael and to help them in the eternal struggle for Irish freedom. Meghann, through dreams and visions and accounts, learns of Nuala's life of her great love for her husband, of the tragic loss of nine of her eleven children, of the struggle against Elizabeth Tudor for Irish independence, and of the final, tragic defeat.

By telling Nuala's story in the first person, the two threads are kept separate. But there are some problems inherent in this technique. The problem with this interweaving is fundamental to the success of the book. It was often unclear to me exactly what Nuala was doing to help and support Meghann and Michael, other than once to offer directions and to provide comfort and a good night's sleep. Her presence did not seem central to the story.

I found Meghann's and Michael's story so compelling and well done, that I actually got annoyed when Nuala's and Rory's story popped up. (No HEA here.) I felt that Michael's trial the denouement toward which the whole book was heading could have been much more dramatically presented and was a little let down at an ending that seemed too pat and hurried. In short, I thought the contemporary part of the book was much better than the historical.

For the most part, Baker's very ambitious project works. However, I must put on my historian's hat for the moment. The author states in her afterword that she "has taken enormous liberties with Irish history." Indeed, she has and with English history, too. Frankly, I don't know why she did it. It wasn't necessary to make her story more dramatic; there were enough atrocities in the English treatment of Ireland in the 16th century without conflating events that happened a century later.

Baker has done a bang up job of painting a picture of contemporary Northern Ireland and detailing the incredible cost of thirty years of civil war. Her portrait of the parties involved is unstintingly honest. The IRA, the Ulster Protestants, the British all are painted in devastatingly true colors. Yet against this unpleasant backdrop, Baker provides a tender tale of a second chance at love for two intelligent, attractive and admirable people. I can't remember when I was rooting so hard for two people to have their happy ending as I did for Michael and Meghann.

So, I recommend Irish Lady. It is not without flaws, but its good points are much more prominent. Baker did provide a happily ever after, at least for two citizens of Northern Ireland. But this week's events suggest that the a real happy ending for that unhappy part of the world is still all too distant.

--Jean Mason


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