Eilís Dillon: The Novels

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Eilís Dillon published eight novels, which appeared in England and America; some were also translated into German. They attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, and the later ones regularly featured in bestseller lists. This page offers a quick overview of the novels, and some critical assessments. Some of the novels now have their own separate web pages, linked below. Her most famous book remains Across the Bitter Sea, which together with its sequel, Blood Relations, explores at length some of the violent upheavals of the author's own childhood, and the historical roots of those events. The early novels remain interesting in themselves and can also be read retrospectively as rehearsals of big themes that will flow into the later historical novels. Taken together, these books portray a certain idea of Ireland, of family, of causes and motivations on the small and grand scales.

The Bitter Glass
London, Faber, 1958;
New York, Appleton Century Crofts, 1959
Dublin, Ward River Press, 1981
Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1987
A powerful novel set in the West of Ireland during the Civil War. A group of young people, cut off in Connemara by IRA action, are forced to come to terms with life and death.

"Full of reality, full of poetry, written with a very sure and sensitive hand. I was completely won by it. I thought the world of Connemara was flawlessly conveyed to a reader who might, or might not, have ever seen it in life. I was never more at home in a book." (Eudora Welty)

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The Head of the Family
London, Faber, 1960
Set in Dublin, this psychological novel explores the tensions and jealousies surrounding the literary patriarch Roger Mallon, his multi-generational household, and the outsiders who come to pay homage in their different ways. Tensions and jealousies come to a head when Roger Mallon makes a new young friend and an American scholar gains access to the old man's secret diaries.

"An excellent, bitter comedy – a little horror-comic about human nature ... This is a very cunning, dreadful little tract, and tremendously enjoyable" (The Guardian)
"Full, rich, comic, tragic, subtle and mature." (The Age, Melbourne)
"A marvellous study in psychology. If your humour tends to be ironic, you will enjoy it." (Liberty)

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Bold John Henebry
London, Faber, 1965

The story of an Irish adventurer and patriot, charting his progress from rural poverty and radicalism to a position of settled wealth and power, and the personal price he pays for his success. John Henebry's story is subtly intertwined with the gains and losses of Ireland's history in the mid- twentieth century.

"A rich family chronicle ... Ireland, its politics and conflicts, come across strongly and the smaller world of Henebry's family is evoked with precision and great tenderness." (Sunday Times)
"Another of Eilís Dillon's sensitive portrals of Irish life earlier in the century ... A solid, satisfying, gently skilful book, worth reading for its tenderness and humour." (Robert Nye, The Guardian)

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Across the Bitter Sea
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1973;
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974
Hailed as "a triumph", Eilís Dillon's big historcal novel was not only an instant bestseller but also a huge critical success.
"A quite remarkable novel ... a huge panorama of suffering, frustration and biterness ... one of the most compelling and convincing love stories I have read ... a novel of which Zola might have been proud." (The Sunday Times)

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Blood Relations
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1978;
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978;
London, Souvenir Press, 1993
The sequel to Across the Bitter Sea, Blood Relations chronicles the painful birth of twentieth-century Ireland.

"Eilís Dillon has recaptured all the essence of the time when a nation [was] struggling back into the light... It is a very wide canvas and all the major figures of the day are part of the story's background - De Valera, Michael Collins, Pearse and Connolly, but Eilís Dillon has again shown her complete mastery of the art of telling a story and infusing it with the breath of life." (Cork Examiner)

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Wild Geese
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1980;
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981
Set in Ireland, France and America, Wild Geese traces a singular thread of eighteenth-century history.

"A tale which spans two continents in turmoil, it's the sort of historical novel by which others are judged" (Evening News, Bolton)
"Their adventures cover two continents in revolutionary upheaval but EilĖs Dillon is always in full control of this tremendous scope and writes with clarity and irony." (Eastern Daily Press, Norwich)
"Eilís Dillon manages to convey all the excitement and danger of a turbulent period in French and American history producing an absorbing historical saga." (Annabel)

Citizen Burke
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984
Citizen Burke is the story of a remarkable Irish Catholic priest in post-Revolutionary France.
"She has created a character of considerable subtlety and interest." (Kevin Casey, Sunday Tribune)
"First class historical novel" (Catholic Herald)
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The Interloper
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987
With The Interloper, Eilís Dillon returned to the theme of Irish history in the twentieth century. Exploring themes of memory and personal redemption, the story moves between the Irish Civil War and the present day.

"The period and the passion are evoked effortlessly ... similar in manner if not in subject to the historical novels of Daphne du Maurier" (Books)

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More from the reviews

Blood Relations
"A masterly treatment of a vast Irish panorama" (Irish Independent)
"It's an impressive novel, shrewd as well as passionate, good with evil and loneliness, with detail in close-up ... or with panoramic views of large events... Eilís Dillon seems to me to deal strongly and fairly and passionately with the difficult, often sneeringly described concept of ancestral memory..." (Isobel Quigly, Financial Times)
"Dillon's superb novel ...The heroine is young Molly but the story encompasses a large cast who involve us wholly whether they are victims, villains or both." (Publishers Weekly)
"This powerful, stirring story..." (Liverpool Daily Post)
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Citizen Burke
"Deft in its handling of the historical events and told in an engaging style which neatly blends compassion with comedy (Times Literary Supplement)
"Historical novels aren't usually my bag but this one has an arresting quality... Ms Dillon's almost claivoyante ability to read into the mind of one James Burke, a priest who left the Church for nationalistic (and naturalistic) reasons in the years surrounding the 1798 business in Ireland." (Books Ireland)
"Subtle and sensitive ... throughout the book one is grateful for language that leaps and sparkles with the wit of its characters, and for a sense of irony that is keen but also kind." (Image)
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