cover image The Promise of Light

The Promise of Light

Paul Watkins. Random House (NY), $20 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41974-7

Further confirming his literary talent, versatility and skill for adventure writing of a high order, Watkins ( In the Blue Light of African Dreams ) shows a mature grasp of his craft in this stunning odyssey of a young man's coming-of-age under brutal circumstances. In 1921, flush with his new job as a banker, young Ben Sheridan returns to his home on Jamestown Island off Rhode Island in time to see a spectacular conflagration in which his father, the island's fire chief, is injured. A routine blood transfusion results in tragedy: his father is poisoned by Ben's blood, and dies leaving a mysterious message and indisputable evidence that Ben is not his real child. With the help of the parish priest, Ben goes to Ireland to try to solve the riddle of his real paternity. From the moment he arrives in the country village of Lahinch he is thrust into the merciless battle between the IRA forces and the British Tans, a bloody war of attrition that leads to a series of suspenseful confrontations in which Ben is involved. Though at first he feels trapped, Ben soon realizes that he is bound by loyalty and by ironic circumstance to these hard-pressed, desperate people. Watkins spins his beautifully researched story in compact, tensile and metaphorically charged prose, vivid with images that tie the protagonist's psychological perceptions with the natural world. The portrayal of the brutal realities of the Irish fight for independence is unflinchingly honest and powerful, electrified by scenes of hand-to-hand combat whose veracity leaps from the page through small details and psychological insights. The behavior of ordinary villagers--some turned secret, heroic soldiers, some cooperating with the enemy--is underscored both by the futility of the long struggle and by its necessity. The only flaw in this remarkable novel is a series of scenes in Rhode Island at the time of Ben's father's death. Here the plotting and the dialogue ring false--a curious lapse in an otherwise impeccable narrative. The reader is urged to read those 50-odd pages with a suspension of judgment; once they are past, the novel hurtles along with jolting surprises and a breathtaking immediacy. (Jan.)