The complexities of religion, faith, love and tragedy tangle in the pages of Maybe God Was an Irishman, an entertaining and insightful novel by Bernie Donnelly. With an overflowing cast of peripheral characters and multiple story lines that brilliantly overlap, this is an expansive novel that stretches across oceans and philosophies, making it an addictive read for anyone who appreciates clever writing and heartfelt narratives.
Initially, it is difficult to determine who the protagonist of the story is, but that is Donnelly’s way of setting the stage for what is to come. Readers are soon introduced to Sean, an orphan who grows up between these chapters, eventually facing the hard choices of an Irish life, namely working at a pub or joining the priesthood. Having overcome the difficulties of an unusual childhood, he must soon tackle an even more challenging decision – making a life with Linda, a woman he could easily love, or leaving her behind for a much higher calling. With Sean as such a core element of the story, the novel seems to be headed for a religious turn, as the title might suggest, but at its core, this book is about the tough choices and moments in any life – secular or otherwise.
The chapters of the book are biblically themed and cleverly relate to the progression of the story, from The Marriage Feast (elaborate wedding) to The Disciple (Father Sean urging Vinnie to go and help the suffering masses in Haiti). The connections are subtle, and the chapters help readers put themselves in the right mindset for what they are about to read. Without being heavy-handed, the book is highly spiritual, and focuses on the moments of grace and potential salvation that can be found and embraced, if one is willing to see them.
Book-ending the novel is the story of Lee “the Skeptic” Thomas, who readers are introduced to at the very start of the book. He is an investigative journalist for the NYT, who has personally experienced unimaginable tragedy in his life. However, his cynicism is shattered when he witnesses the truth of so-called “miracles” in Ireland, specifically in the work and life of Father Sean, whose birth was signaled by Halley’s Comet, another infamous “star” heralding legendary arrivals.
The writing is clean and honest, and despite having a bevy of different characters, Donnelly keeps the stories straight and easy to follow. There are very few grammatical errors or repetitive syntax, and the pace of the story is consistent and engaging; in other words, once you dive into this complex piece, it will be difficult to put down. The colloquial language is subtle, but helps establish a believable context for the tale. Furthermore, the depiction of relationships – both difficult and easy – shows that the author has an insightful and comprehensive grasp on human nature.
As a whole, the novel centers on the real-world wonders that certain people are able to achieve through kindness, compassion, patience and self-sacrifice. Perhaps there is such a thing as divine intervention and the gentle nudging of God, but the tangible miracles of good-hearted humans are often even more powerful. The end of this novel will leave readers uplifted and refreshed – spiritually, emotionally and philosophically – regardless of one’s particular religious beliefs or opinions. That is the sign of a truly great book, and a very talented writer.
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