Sins of the fathers

Blood-Dark Track: a family history

Joseph O'Neill <em>Granta, 338pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1862072884

Joseph O'Neill was born in Cork, in his father's homeland, in 1964, but he grew up in The Hague. He spent the summer holidays of his childhood in Mersin, southern Turkey - his mother's birthplace. Blood-Dark Track is his third book (he has written two novels when not practising as a barrister), and all these autobiographical details come into play. Deep in his past is a mystery concerning his two grandfathers, who share a thrilling coincidence: they were both incarcerated, for unknown reasons, by their own governments during the Second World War. Geographically, Turkey and Ireland are worlds apart; but for James O'Neill and Joseph Dakak, the historical reality is more pertinent.

It is the early 1940s. O'Neill, a roguish, small-town poacher, is disinherited in a family squabble and forced to scrape a living for his rapidly growing family in a maelstrom of terrorist activity. He is an active member of the IRA, and is interned, along with hundreds of his colleagues, by Eamon de Valera's government. At the same time, Dakak - a debonair hotelier from the tiny and beleaguered Christian Turkish minority in a small but crucial (to the allies) Turkish harbour - is imprisoned by the British in Palestine, while travelling to buy lemons, on suspicion of being an Axis spy. So what lay behind those imprisonments? Was O'Neill responsible for the notorious murder of Admiral Somerville - a vociferous unionist who lived down the road? And was Dakak really a Nazi spy? What a case for a barrister with a razor-sharp mind!

Joseph O'Neill read Dostoevsky's desperate letters from prison to his uncommunicative brother, and the saying "Les absents ont toujours tort" seemed to apply to his own relationship with his mysterious grandfathers. The secrecy that surrounds them - self-imposed and colluded in by their wives - raises suspicions and paranoia in the subsequent generations. O'Neill begins with "absent wrongdoers", but his mission is to discover the truth; and, as he makes clear from the start, he is only too used to sifting through the self-serving narratives spun by his clients in their defence. His prose is calm and ruthlessly efficient, as he scrutinises documents, questions witnesses and analyses correspondence, diary jottings and obscure historical tomes.

The result is two disparate stories that cunningly connect the personal with the political. In order to exonerate, or perhaps condemn, the wrongdoers, O'Neill has done his research with exacting thoroughness. This meticulous, and at times obsessive, documentation of the evidence is offset by O'Neill's powerful depiction of two distant countries and their times. The exotic, Levantine Joseph Dakak is seen perfectly poised in the cosmopoli-tan intrigue of the east. The handsome, street-smart James O'Neill is captured tangling with forces beyond his control in a mess of republican infighting. The truth emerges gradually, as the personality and fallibi-lities of each man are exposed.

O'Neill's excavations reveal how both of his grandfathers were ultimately betrayed by their own flawed sense of themselves and their destiny. And he is forced to re-evaluate his own political vision. Can he uphold the republican ideals of his Irish ancestor when, on closer inspection, they are riddled with so many moral anomalies? Can he take pride in his Turkish nationality, when his grandfather was betrayed by the Turkish establishment he once longed to join?

Although Blood-Dark Track lacks the thrill of the chase achieved by a more naturally gifted storyteller, it is a moving account, judiciously mixing familial feelings with historical research to powerful effect.

Lilian Pizzichini is working on her own book about a shady grandfather, to be published by Picador

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