By Tom O’Brien
Review by Elly Gibson
Cassidy’s Cross is set in the fictional village of Doonbay in the South East of Ireland. It’s the 1960s and rural life seems pretty simple and straightforward.
On the surface the main characters appear to be upstanding members of a solid community. Amongst them headteacher Donal, his colleague Helen, the village priest Father Maguire and local entrepreneur Martyn. Although from the outset it’s obvious that the two teenage brothers also at the heart of much of the action – James ‘Ringyboy’ Ring and his older wayward sibling Johnny, back in Ireland on holiday from his new life in London – are rather less reputable.
The action takes place across the four local pillars of the school, the church, the mine and – of course – the pub.
But it quickly becomes clear all is not exactly as it seems. The village life is built on layer upon layer of secrets and deception – and with such uncertain foundations it doesn’t take long for the façade to begin to crumble.
The simmering tensions first begin to bubble over when the historic rivalry between Donal and Martyn – that began when they came to blows over Martyn’s wife Jenny before she died – is stoked up once again.
At the same time the illicit relationship between Donal and Helen badly sours, and takes a very dark turn. And then James, while up to his usual high jinks, uncovers a letter that reveals a jaw-dropping revelation from the village’s past.
Always on the lookout for a new scam or trick, James and his brother see their chance to make a fast buck and help raise the cash to enable James to start a new life in London with Johnny. They decide to blackmail those implicated in the letter – and set in motion a chain of events they could never have bargained for.
While Donal and Martyn try to set aside their differences and work together to get the better of the brothers – who always seem to be one step ahead – Helen quietly steps into the fore with a steely determination to right the wrongs that have been done to her.
She rekindles her friendship with Donal’s wife Cora – the twin sister of Martyn’s late wife Jenny, and herself another victim of Donal’s manipulation. As Cora begins to finally break free of Donal’s ties around her, he becomes more and more unhinged.
As the plot advances at a quickening pace towards an inevitable ending, Donal finds himself losing control completely. He prepares to take whatever action is needed to regain it – with literally explosive consequences.
I found the book an entertaining, old-school exploration of the darker side of the human condition – unequal relationships and power struggles, secrets and lies, envy and betrayals. In some ways it’s quite traditional, touching on old-fashioned motifs like morals and hypocrisy. But it’s told in a contemporary and compelling way.
Donal finds himself losing control completely – with literally explosive consequences
I really bought in to the characters. The leads are all well-rounded, credible and easy to visualise. And the supporting cast are a colourful and believable bunch. I particularly liked bolshy good-time girl Liz and would have enjoyed seeing more of her in the main frame, rather than the sub-plots.
It took me a little while to get into – which is probably more of a reflection of my mood during this strange new normal than anything to do with the book. But from about halfway through Cassidy’s Cross I got annoyed when I had to put it down, which is always a good sign. The book genuinely surprised and enticed me. And I liked the hint of ambiguity at the ending. Perhaps another instalment in the offing? I for one would definitely read it!
• Tom O’Brien is a Hastings-based Irish novelist, playwright and poet with an extensive output of work. Cassidy’s Cross is available from Bookbuster or online. Find Tom and his work on Facebook.
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