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Review: The Yellow House, by Patricia Falvey
Center Street/Hachette, 2009. 333 pp. $18

Eight-year-old Eileen O’Neill of Glenlea, northern Ireland, feels secure, despite tense adult conversation swirling around her in summer 1905. After all, her doting father has, on a whim, brought home pots of yellow paint for their house and turns the painting into a game. Also, the house sits beneath a mountain of physical and spiritual beauty that represents her proud heritage. Eileen has so much to be thankful for. Even if Da seems to have trouble making the family farm pay, the warmth of home outweighs potential threats.

But the Catholic O’Neills live in county Armagh, dominated by Protestants, the more aggressive of whom think nothing of seizing Catholic property or chasing Catholic laborers out of jobs Protestants might want. And when personal misfortunes strike the family, life comes crashing down around their ears.

Michael Collins, the charismatic Irish nationalist, addresses a crowd in Cork on St. Patrick’s Day, 1922 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The Yellow House follows Eileen’s checkered adolescent years and young adulthood through the First World War and the civil war that follows, including her employment at a spinning mill, and her attraction to two older men. There’s James Conlon, a passionate nationalist whose fire appeals to her; she appreciates a fighter, since her family claims warrior ancestry. Then there’s Owen Sheridan, scion to the Quaker mill owner, the opposite of James—measured, sensitive, harder to define, and steadier. He’s also out of bounds, as a Protestant and member of the industrial gentry.

Falvey does best, I think, conveying a society craving a place to belong, hence the value assigned to home and land, and the violence that’s partly a response to dispossession. I can recall only a couple historical novels published here about the Irish civil war, so The Yellow House helps fill that void. I particularly like how she portrays the hard-nosed romantic revolutionaries, who act as though the end always justifies the means, and who love a martyr’s funeral. She renders the mill workers with care as well; these people are trying to get by, thrive on gossip, and will skewer anybody who sticks out from the herd. Eileen provides a ready target.

Occasionally, the prose touches poetry, as with this description of her beloved mountain:

Her summer robe of bracken so thick now would soon be in tatters, exposing the scars and furrows on her surface. Crevasses formed millions of years ago by the ice age would be exposed, crossing her face like ancient wrinkles. But now the last of the summer flowers and grasses clothed her in a colorful robe. A rabbit darted past, and in the distance, waterfowl cried from the many lakes.

But overall, the novel disappoints. Eileen, though not a complex character, at least lives in an intriguing predicament, and you want her to find happiness. Theresa, her closest friend, comes through just enough. But the central male characters are types with fewer facets, the firebrand James especially. Perhaps that’s because the narrative often tells what qualities they have, and how Eileen feels afterward, sometimes in a list—anger, joy, etc. Maybe other readers don’t mind that approach, perhaps even find it helpful, but I feel cheated, fobbed off by a generic description. Why should I care, if the author doesn’t?

To her credit, Falvey smashes her heroine hard; Eileen suffers many painful reverses. I wish, though, they were less predictable, didn’t feel ordained. To cite a minor example, the night Da brings home the yellow paint, he’s forgotten the flour and meat his wife wanted. Fun but irresponsible, you think; and sure enough, paragraphs later, he reveals he’s sold some acreage without telling her. Since he’s a recognizable type (and never surprises), you expect the troubles that follow. He’s not strong enough to make a contingency plan or resist effectively. Besides, what drags him down has been dropped into conversation, so it’s inevitable.

At first, I wondered whether Falvey was trying to create a fatalistic universe in which tragedy is inescapable; but no. However often Eileen tells herself that as a poor, Catholic woman she has no standing, she acts differently. She’s a scrapper, never seriously embraces the chance that her circumstances might trap her forever. Nor does she reflect overmuch on her hard life, even less on choices she’s made. When things go wrong, she shouts her anger and pain—she shouts frequently—but moves on afterward in haste. She expresses shock at her reverses, but I’m not convinced; it’s as though she knows what’s in store.

This sense of life ordained bleeds into the historical background. Falvey has people anticipate general European war, not only in 1914 but years beforehand, and speak of it in terms nobody used back then and with prescience they couldn’t have possessed. But careless historical research doesn’t undo The Yellow House. What hurts this novel are the generic characters and situations, such that you don’t need tea leaves to guess where the story will go next.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.