Irish Book Review: White Feathers by Susan Lanigan

White Feathers is a suspense-filled new novel about mis-matched lovers separated by the horrors of WWI.

White Feathers

White Feathers by Susan Lanigan (O’Brien Press)

Susan Lanigan’s debut novel White Feathers opens in 1913, as 17-year-old Eva Downey escapes her suffocating family to attend a finishing school for one year. Eva is full of the passions and principles of adolescence, and has been getting involved with the suffragettes, much to the horror of her deeply conservative family. Her family are Irish; her father a relatively well-to-do accountant who has moved the family from Cork to London escape both scandal and the sadness of Eva’s mother’s death.

The family home is a stew of tense relationships. Eva’s father married his wife’s maid after her death, so Eva has a step-sister almost her own age, the vindictive Grace. Eva’s younger sister, Imelda, is an invalid, slowly dying of consumption; Imelda’s care — or the withholding of it — is a constant threat their step-mother Catherine holds over Eva.

The year at finishing school is more than just a temporary escape for Eva, it represents the possibility of an advantageous marriage; naturally, Eva jumps at the chance and has a hunger to soak in new experiences. One of her teachers, the literary but slightly down-at-heel Christopher Shandlin, begins to fall in love with Eva’s vivacity and youthful confidence. Eva in turn is drawn to his artistic sensibility. The stage is set for a classic tale of infatuation or perhaps a comedy-of-manners.

But, first Eva’s vindictive step-mother ends Eva’s brief idyll by recalling her to London to care for her sister, who has taken a turn for the worse, and then WWI intervenes with its insatiable need for men to act as cannon fodder for aristocratic generals who stubbornly believe that reality will bend itself to their whims.

Eva’s step-sister, Grace, is a truly manipulative and slightly unhinged personality; she throws herself into the practice of presenting white feathers of cowardice to men who are not in uniform, dragging an unwilling Eva along with her. Christopher intends to be a conscious objector, his brother having died in the Boer War. Needless to say, Grace can’t stand by and allow Eva to find happiness. Suffice to say, Grace and Catherine (an evil stepmother who could teach any fairy tale stepmother a thing or two) contrive to force Eva to present Christopher with the white feather, forcing him into the army, and then compel Eva to marry a brute of man, a poor Irish farmer who’s been infatuated with her for years.

Eva has no reason to think fondly of Ireland. Although she was born in Cork, the only Irish she meets are her step-mother’s extended family and friends. As a former-servant desperately trying to hide her social inferiority and promote her natural daughter’s welfare above that of her two step-daughters, Catherine is a scheming, cold, and cruel woman.

The atmosphere of deep concern for what others think, and suffocating conformity should be of great familiarity anyone who grew up in Ireland or particularly among Irish expat communities overseas. Even when Eva thinks she’s escaped her family by serving in France as a nurse, she discovers a cousin of her unloved husband, who attempts to monitor and control her behavior, lest she bring shame on the family, and who keeps the family members back in Ireland and London informed of her behavior. It’s an accurate portrait of the worst of Irish clannishness and suspicion of outsiders and difference, an aspect that although younger generations appear to be shedding, remains all too near the surface. (Just look at the vitriol being slung right now over the marriage referendum.)

Eva and Christopher’s doomed love is the centerpiece of the novel, and although there are fascinating sub-plots and some sympathetic secondary characters (I couldn’t help but read the dialogue for Eva’s best friend, the upper-class Lady Sybil — who has done her duty and married a titled aristocrat, although he proves to be every bit as boorish and brutal as Eva’s unlettered farmer — in Miranda Hart’s voice, being a fan of Call the Midwife) the plot keeps returning to the will-they-or-won’t-they story of the two would-be lovers separated by war and Eva’s unwilling betrayal with the white feather.

The tension is sustained wonderfully, and the pages fly by as you devour the story hoping for a happy ending, but knowing the reality of WWI, fearing the worst. Lanigan has done a great job of researching the social history of the time, and interweaving this research with vivid characters. White Feathers is a novel that conveys a great deal of historical reality through the story of two unlikely lovers, and also balances the history and the romance in such a way that keeps the book enthralling for fans of both genres.

Lanigan writes very cinematically, which is to say that she excels at painting pictures of the action and cuts between visual images rather like a film director. Scenes of passion move from image to image, and some of the more-dramatic moments (like Eva’s escape from a sinking ship late in the novel) are wonderfully told through deft imagery. If this makes getting inside the head of Eva’s lover, Christopher, difficult (after all, we get the story largely from Eva’s perspective) it’s not a fatal flaw, as Eva is a very sympathetic character with her hunger for life, experience, and the man who’s been taken away.

All in all, White Feathers is an excellent novel, vivid, immediate, and packing an emotional punch, and one that should be equally appealing to WWI buffs, romantics, and literary readers.


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