“In the end, as a novelist, you have to create a novel. I had to create a work of fiction. I found that the first time I wrote the book, I tried to be very, very accurate and the result was very stillborn: I had been too exact and the result was neither biography nor fiction. To make them come alive I had to create a context around the characters. This is a work of fiction; I cannot know what Art felt when he was exiled; what Brendan thought as he was imprisoned on a train on the tundra, yet those little details are important to make the reader really see them. I was very pleased with the reaction of people who knew Eva, Brendan and Art; they tell me I have captured the spirit of each individual. Not every detail is true but through the imagining of that detail I believe the sense of who they were, is strong.”
Bolger may not have heroes and villains, but there is not doubt in the book about his strong affection for Eva, and for what she represents. He says that he believes that it is with her that most readers identify, “it is still her book. The story became too difficult for her to carry on her own, but it still for me is her book “.
A deep distrust of any ideology is a strong undercurrent in the book, as is the idea that individuals matter, and that their search for happiness is more valid than any dogma. The portrait of Art is sad and grim: the man who sacrifices everything to build a brave new world, ends up ignored by those he wants to save, and achieving nothing but hurt and pain for those who love him. Brendan is lost in the gulags, caught in the spider's web of Stalin's terror. Eva, who lives a quiet, domestic life, looking after her children and towards the end of the book very modestly teaching children to paint, is the one who offers hope; by listening to her inner voice, and by following her mother's simple advice: “strive tooth and nail for the right to be happy”.
“It is a curious thing: on the surface, Eva is the person who the least happens to, yet she is the one that achieves most. The others set themselves so impossibly high targets – changing the world – yet in the end they have no real effect on any of the great events they are caught up in. Perhaps in the end you cannot really change the world but you can change a small number of people, and that is what Eva achieves.”
Bolger adds that while Art caused a lot of emotional destruction “in a different century, he would have been a Catholic saint. The 20th century has been very hard on men with totally intransigent views. The challenge for me was to make Art human, and to understand what it was that drove him and many others. It is easy to be wise in hindsight, but we did not live through the 1920s and -30s. It was a time that
seemed to bring out the extremes in people. “
A remarkable thing about this richly orchestrated story, is how it never simplifies or excuses the realities that existed in that world. Bolger maps the brutality of the century, with naked descriptions of Stalin's terror, but also attempts to understand the strange mechanisms that made so many defend it till the end. The book describes the reality of poverty and deprivation in Dublin and Donegal, and reflects the hopelessness and suffering that gave such ideologies the shape of a believable alternative.
While directing our gaze to the fault lines in history this is ultimately a story about a family, about individuals and their loss and suffering. And it is with individuals like Eva, that the author finds that although innocence is lost, hope is still possible: “Hunger brought out the extremes in people – which explained why desperate men locked in absolutist positions ruled so much of the world…yet there must be room for dissenting thinkers, unnoticed but vital as plankton, who provided no answers but questioned reality” says Eva. Bolger has, through this book, made one such unnoticed but vital voice heard.