A childhood brush with death leaves the (unnamed) narrator of Ronan O’Brien’s Dublin-set first novel with the kind of ‘gift’ he could do without: dreams of his best friend drowning. Convinced that these dreams are prophetic, he tries to avert the fatal events; but inadvertently causes his friend’s death — which occurs in exactly the manner foretold. A few years later, the visions return, this time showing the death of Mrs Horricks, the old (and later retired) librarian whom the boy has befriended. In due course, the dreams again come true — at the same time as an innocent mix-up over a defaced library book escalates into an incident that lands the narrator in a young offenders’ institution.
Upon his release, the young man (now aged 19) manages to get a job behind the bar at a rough pub named Happy’s. It’s here that he meets his soulmate, the beautiful Ashling; the two fall head-over-heels in love and, in short order, marry. But we know (because the narrator has already told us) that it will end in tragedy: our man dreams of his wife’s death, and destiny proceeds as before. The loss of Ashling sends the protagonist into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism, and he is placed in a psychiatric unit.
When he’s released into society once more, the narrator decides to sell his house, and unwittingly ends up moving next door to Norman Valentine, a violent thug he first met back in the young offenders’ institution. He meets — and, over time, finds that he cares deeply for — Valentine’s abused wife Chloe, and daughter Zoe. Then our man provides the evidence that leads to Valentine’s arrest for assault; and the dreams come back, foretelling the death of Zoe. Will tragedy strike once again, or can the protagonist defy fate at last?
The great strength of Confessions of a Fallen Angel is the portrayal of its central character and his journey through life. It is quite disarming at first to discover that this lively, amiable narrative voice belongs to someone who has seen so much of life’s darker side. But what O’Brien does so convincingly is to show how an intelligent, fundamentally decent lad with a sharp tongue could fall through the cracks. School doesn’t really interest the boy, then his stepbrother wrecks the library book; one thing leads to another, and he ends up where he does, instead of on the more successful path one senses he could have taken had life worked out just a little differently.
Another aspect of the plot that I thought rang particularly true was the way our man falls in love. This happens twice, and each time is subtly different. The first time, with Ashling, O’Brien captures the whirlwind of ‘true love’, and just about succeeds in making it nearly as wonderful to read about as it is for the characters to experience (though it does feel a little too sickly at times). The second time the narrator falls in love is with Chloe, but it’s love of a different sort (though no less genuine) — not the intensity of falling for ‘the one’, but a more gradual flowering of attraction. One gains the impression that O’Brien is a skilled observer and depictor of life.
As a character, the narrator comes vividly to life; his sharp wit is especially welcome, as it undercuts even the bleakest episodes of his story, and maintains a constant thread of hope. O’Brien’s secondary characters don’t have quite the same depth (perhaps inevitably, as they’re all viewed through the lens of his narrator), but some leave quite a strong impression — in particular the librarian who replaces Mrs Horricks (he’s something of a comic cut, but you’ll surely have encountered people like him); and Norman Valentine, the kind of dangerous individual one wishes didn’t exist and hopes never to meet.
O’Brien gives his tale a light dusting of fantasy, which ultimately soured it for me a little. The narrator’s dreams aren’t a problem: they’re just a harmless plot device. But the author’s use of the afterlife gives the novel (particularly the ending) something of a fairytale aspect that O’Brien doesn’t manage to reconcile with the harsh reality of the protagonist’s life. It makes the ending feel cosier than it really is. Nevertheless, Confessions of a Fallen Angel shines brightly as a character study, and is a fine début.