Redemption Falls happens to be the name of the chief town in the Mountain Territory (a slightly misplaced Montana) as it was immediately after the Civil War. But it is more than that, since it perfectly captures the mood, the character of a novel in which there is no redemption.
Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor is a novel of aftermath, the bitter and divisive consequences of the end of a war, the end of a marriage, the end of a reputation, the end of loyalties and trust and belief. It starts in the bitter Christmas of 1865 when a stagecoach driver is found to have been hanged by vigilantes near an abandoned mine just outside Redemption Falls. A child is discovered at the scene but runs away from his would-be rescuers. It ends just a year later when that same child proves to be the catalyst for many more deaths. In between … well, in between there is an entire universe.
The far from still centre of the novel is James Con O’Keefe, Irish revolutionary, condemned to death by the English, reprieved and transported to Tasmania, from where he escaped, was shipwrecked, miraculously survived, made his way to America where he became a star on the lecture circuit, raised and became general of the New York Irish Brigade when the Civil War started. But then something unspecified went wrong, he was relieved of his command and sent out of the way to become Acting Governor of the Mountain Territory. He is still revered by many who served under him, but loathed by others, and detested by those who supported the South of whom there are many in Redemption Falls including the local newspaper editor. O’Keefe responds with drunkenness, autocracy and self-loathing, building himself a grandiose and never completed iron-doored house on the outskirts of town.
It is a complex, contradictory but intensely satisfying portrait of a flawed and complex man. Part of what O’Connor is doing in this novel is demonstrating how many different ways there are to see the same person. But O’Keefe is only part of the story.
There is Lucia, the New York Society beauty of Spanish extraction who became O’Keefe’s pre-war bride. She is liberated, strong-willed, independent-minded, she writes poetry (which is published under a male pseudonym). Having been separated from her husband throughout the war, she rejoins him now in the raw wilderness of Redemption Falls, but has difficulty coping with the way the war has changed him, and with the outright hostility of most of the townspeople. There is Winterton, the disfigured cartographer who may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Lucia during the war, and who now turns up in Redemption Falls to map the territory and to renew a romance in which Lucia has no interest. There is Eliza Moody, the illiterate teenaged girl of mixed race who sets out to walk from New Orleans in search of her younger brother who ran away to join the Confederate army. She turns up in Redemption Falls as the common law wife of a southern outlaw, a cross between Bloody Bill Anderson and Jesse James.
And then there is Jeddo Moody, the boy who disappeared that snowy Christmas, and who reappears some months later when he is taken in by the Governor, who dotes on him, and Lucia, who doesn’t. But Jeddo responds to both with the same sullen hatred, refusing to speak though he is not a mute. The boy who is the catalyst for the great tragedy of Redemption Falls.
These, and the others who populate this teeming novel, are multi-faceted characters, and we are never entirely sure what to believe about any of them. Because none of the story is told in a straightforward way, rather it is made up of a mosaic of diary extracts, letters, newspaper reports, verbatim interviews, transcripts of official inquiries, advertisements, poems, popular ballads, grafitti, and the notes of a relative of Lucia, writing in 1937, who has become obsessed with the story of Con O’Keefe and Jeddo Moody. Some of the ‘authors’ of the letters are near-illiterate, some of the interviewees speak a patois far from standard English, all are prejudiced one way or another, most are unreliable. Though we cannot rely on knowing which of the speakers are unreliable.
It’s not an easy book to read, in part because you’re having to learn a new language every few pages, in part because you are assailed with so many different voices, in part because there are so many variations that it is often difficult to know exactly what is going on. But in the end you realise that all you can do is construct your own version of events from the various witness statements, build up your own character of Con O’Keefe from all the contradictions.
It is not a story that undermines your view of events, because you’ve never been on solid ground to start with. But it is a story that will shock you as you are led inexorably through the failures and betrayals that bedevil every single one of the main characters. And though you have some inkling of how things will end, it still comes as a stunning surprise.
In short, this is not a novel to love, but it is a novel I admire more than just about anything I have read in a very long time.
First published at LiveJournal, 11 February 2008.