Restless Souls is a strong debut from Dan Sheehan about war and loss, male friendship and the power of home.
Restless Souls Synopsis
Tom, Karl and Baz grew up together in down-on-its-luck Dublin. Friends since childhood, their lives diverged when Tom left home to be a war correspondent. Now, after three years embedded in the Siege of Sarajevo, he returns a haunted shell of the lad who went away.
Karl and Baz have no idea what they’re doing but they are determined to see him through the darkness, even if it means travelling halfway around the world. Hearing about an unlikely cure – an experimental clinic called Restless Souls – they embark on a road trip across California.
But as they try to save Tom from his memories, they must confront their own – of what happened to their childhood friend Gabriel. And in doing so, they must ask how their boisterous teenage souls became weighed down, and why life got so damn complicated and sad.
(Hachette Australia, February 2018)
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK, February 2018) and Ig Publishing (US, April 2018)
Genre: Adventure, Literature, Drama, Mystery
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Restless Souls is one of those ‘sleeper’ debuts. Little buzz prior to publication; understated cover art. Even the publisher synopsis, for me, exudes an unassuming, typically Irish stoicism.
But Dan Sheehan’s simple act of prefacing his debut with the haunting opening lines of U2’s iconic song Miss Sarajevo
Is there a time for keeping a distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day
triggers memories, big ones, for those of us old enough to be cognizant of the atrocities that inspired them — and speaks to the author’s ambition.
Restless Souls is presented as two alternating narratives — both told in first-person, demonstrating Sheehan’s accessible, conversational writing style. Karl’s narrative, particularly in respect to his and his mates’ often loutishly awkward behaviour, is strong on self-deprecation, sarcasm and profanity.
A pair of foghorn lummoxes wandering round a graveyard talking nonsense. This is what mourners want to encounter when they make their weekly pilgrimage. I move to one side and bow my head as a couple of blue-haired fossils float by, but they cluck at us like toe-poked hens all the same.
But while Karl’s narrative is anchored in the story’s present (the late 1990s) with frequent reflective sequences helping fill in the gaps for readers, Tom’s transports us back in time, riding shotgun with him in war-torn Sarajevo.
The nursing home faced out onto an exposed stretch of road. As we drove around the back of the building I could see the axe lying in a pool of blackening blood beside the tree stump where, till this morning, logs were split. I thought of Jelena, and how she said the birds have left the parks of Sarajevo, because all of the trees have been cut down for firewood. How dead silence follows carnage.
Appropriate to the context, but also Tom’s sensitive nature, his voice is more direct in its observation of the tragedy unfolding. Highly atmospheric, stark and moving.
Death rattles from the shadows all around us. The still bodies of ten bundled-up geriatrics beside a tiny wood-burning stove… She lowered herself with a grimace, opened the latch and pushed two twisted-up sticks of newspaper into the tiny huddle of flames… I tore pages from an old copy of Oslobodjenje and scrunched them into tight cigars. The Obituaries section made up two of the eight pages. The dead warming the dying.
This story’s telling is complicated, particularly so the reflective passages (and the like) that pepper Karl’s narrative. Initially, Sheehan dangles past events and characters names as though they are known, like carrots — the reader’s payoff delayed until the dots can be joined. We take the bait, and with deft touch are reeled in… then the line is let out again. For me, this built intrigue and my investment; for others perhaps confusion/frustration.
The backstories of these Restless Souls are fraught with hardship and loss, but Sheehan avoids cloying sentimentality. And while sarcasm is a coping mechanism for his characters, they are not flippant. They display an awareness of the consequences of their decisions — and both individually and in their mateship, an innate sense of decency and appealing resilience.
Sheehan’s ability to find the light (and subtle humour) amidst tragedy, that instinctive emotional outlet, and then emulate that with such poignancy, and most importantly dignity, is something to be admired.
Dan Sheehan’s Restless Souls, much like life, is far from perfect… but it spoke to me, it moved me. It left a tear in my eye.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
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This review counts towards my participation in the New Release Challenge 2018.
About the Author, Dan Sheehan
Dan Sheehan received his MFA from University College Dublin. His writing has appeared in the Irish Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, TriQuarterly, Words Without Borders, BOMB, and Electric Literature, among others. He currently works as an editor at Literary Hub and lives with his wife Tea Obreht in New York. Restless Souls is his first novel.
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* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.