Belfast in 1916. Fourteen-year-old Helen is shaped by her mixed background - rural, Catholic Irish values from her mother; urban, Protestant Ulster values from her father. Helen's older cousins are her idols: Sandy, who joined the army straight from school and has already seen action in France, and Michael, who runs away from home to enlist. But before he leaves for France, Michael is deployed to Dublin to help quell the Rising, where he's expected to open fire on his fellow Irishmen, and Sandy writes home about terrible things on the front. What exactly are they fighting for?
Such is just a brief synopsis of the novel NAME UPON NAME. When I first opened this novel, I was hesitant as to what I was about to embark upon. I had hoped it wasn't going to be just another retelling of the Easter Rising 1916, only this time from a teenage girl's perspective. But no, on entering the first pages of NAME UPON NAME, I already knew this was teenage fiction, historical analysis, and a real glimpse into Ireland's past. I use the word 'past' loosely as our history is very much a part of our present. It is what has shaped us into who we are.
From the beginning we know that Helen is living in a divided country, caught between religion and politics which are intertwined and most importantly and notably, she is living in a divided family. One line is this novel stands out for me; Helen says to her cousin Nora, 'Surely all that - about patriots and Ireland - isn't as important as family?' This statement is at the core of the novel.
Wilkinson showcases the devastation of the War in Europe, the Rising in Dublin, and the war among families in Northern Ireland, brilliantly. Helen is torn with everything she does. At just fourteen years of age, this young character is being shaped by those around her. And those around her are allowing her to be torn in so many pieces. She is unable to establish an identity.
As the story progresses we get to see Helen mature in a way no fourteen year old should have to. She takes it upon herself to resolve her familial differences to each other and makes them see just how important family is. She eventually hears Uncle Sean say, 'Your principles are important, but not as important as your family'. I can see the smile on Helen's face as she hears these words even though it's not written on the page.
Having grown up living in Donegal near the Derry border and now currently living just on the Derry border, I can relate to Helen's experiences. I had no personal division in my circle but I knew and know many who had and perhaps still do.
Just recently I realised that this novel is indeed very much autobiographical. Wilkinson grew up in very similar circumstances to Helen and it is only now that she feels confident enough to voice her true feelings about that upbringing and how it shaped her.
This book is set in 1916, ninety-nine years ago, although it has a very contemporary feel to it. Such is the storytelling masterpiece of Wilkinson.
I spoke with Jennifer Johnston just over a year ago about the troubles in modern fiction and she told me, 'The troubles never go away. They will always be there in the backgroud'. How very true those words are. Although Wilkinson has placed the Rising 1916 at the heart of this novel, we know as a country that it will never go away. It's very much a part of who were are today. It has helped shaped much of our identity and certainly our cultural identity. We can never get away from it and nor should we wish to.
NAME UPON NAME gives us a real insight into this time in Irish history from the perspective of a teenage girl. It's one novel which our youth can now read and help them to understand just what this time was like. It's a novel which could very likely be on the Leaving Cert English curriculum in the future. It's one which my son plans on using this year as part of his Leaving Cert history project. It's one which is not only apt for the forthcoming centenary but one which keeps our history very much alive in the present day. And without history and language, how else would we be shaped as a nation. As Brian Friel wrote in Translations, 'It's not the literal past,the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language'.
NAME UPON NAME is available to purchase now from Little Island publishers.