Review by: Wm Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin
John Kerr, Cardigan Bay (San Antonio: Corona Publishing Company, 2008), 344 pp.
As a work-a-day archival historian, I am generally allergic to historical fiction. But occasionally I discover a novel that reaches into the minds of contemporaries in a way that historians themselves cannot match because they are usually tied to written evidence. Sometimes there is a psychological dimension to historical insight that comes across in the art of the novel, for example in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. I am proud to have played a minor part in the mid-1970s in helping to make the historical significance of his work more widely known, though I did not go as far as Max Beloff in saying that one could learn more about the British in India simply by reading Paul Scott than by bothering to read the historians of the Raj.
More recently I have read with great enjoyment and intellectual benefit Shirley Hazzard on Hiroshima and Dan Jacobson on the family of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Hazzard’s Great Fire creates a panoramic view on the end of the war including that of a Japanese family, and, at a different level, the national perspectives of China, the United States, and Britain—with the components of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong and the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand (the author’s veiled contempt for New Zealand is permanently lodged in my memory). Jacobson’s All for Love is about King Leopold’s daughter Louise, but I know of no other work that explains Leopold’s psychological makeup and, indirectly, his motives in the Congo. Leopold despised his family. Despite his notoriety he was a Belgian patriot who wanted to leave the Congo to Belgium as a national legacy. The novels by Paul Scott, Shirley Hazzard, and Dan Jacobson are thus examples of historical fiction that have made an immense contribution to our understanding of historical events and personalities. I wish in retrospect that I had written reviews attesting to the value of fictional insight.
Cardigan Bay depicts similar epic themes. It is about a love affair of a British officer and an American woman living in Ireland during the Second World War. At the beginning of the war the British conducted secret talks in Dublin that would have created a united Ireland in return for Irish support for the Allied cause and the use of the Irish ports. But the Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera refused to enter the war. Mutual mistrust endured, as did the mixed views of the Irish themselves towards Nazi gunrunning to the IRA. Such is the background to Cardigan Bay’s intricate plot. At the risk of revealing too much, let me merely say that one of the key figures is an anti-IRA, anti-Nazi German, a man of ethical principle, who participates in the abortive attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.
There are points of detail in Cardigan Bay that will cause debate among purists about the rendering of English vocabulary into the American idiom of the book. But the theme of courage mingled with ambivalent attitudes towards the war is unforgettable. Through the triangulation of two parts of the war with a distant third, John Kerr gives the reader a new understanding of Irish neutrality, the thuggery of the IRA, and the moral resistance among a few officers of the Wehrmacht to the Nazi regime.