The Soldier’s Farewell is the third, concluding part of a popular, acclaimed trilogy that began with The Soldier’s Song and continued with The Soldier’s Return. It is the story of Dubliner Stephen Ryan, an ex-soldier decorated by the British for his heroism in the trenches of France, but who has been left traumatised. He and his fiancée, Lillian, are forging careers in mathematics and planning a peaceful future as husband and wife. Fate has other plans for them.
This is the Dublin of 1921, a city in turmoil as the War of Independence reaches its peak. Stephen has resisted politics, even though his brother, Joe, is a prominent and vociferous Republican, connected at the highest levels. But with Joe incarcerated on charges of murder, and with his friend, the shadowy British Under-Secretary, Sir Alfred ‘Andy’ Cope, whispering hints of a possible ceasefire and British withdrawal, he has no choice but to surrender to the greater needs of his country. Within weeks, he is part of the delegation led by Arthur Griffith, Erskine Childers and Michael Collins, sent to negotiate a treaty in London. The take-it-or-leave-it deal is questionable, and deeply divisive, plunging the nation into a vicious civil war. With his military record, and his ability as a sharpshooter, Stephen is quickly drafted in to help command the Free State forces, placing him in direct opposition to his die-hard brother during the onslaught of the Four Courts. As the conflict builds to an inevitable climax, something has to give.
The Soldier’s Farewell skirts certain stereotypes, and reading this novel ignorant of the trilogy’s previous volumes unfortunately sees the subplots fall somewhat flat. This is particularly so with the psychopathic Garvey, bent on vengeance against the Ryan brothers and their kin, and also with the plagiarism storyline that plays out between Lillian and her treacherous university superior, Keach. Lillian’s character, as a suffragette-type out of step with her time, intrigues without being sufficiently explored and ultimately feels staged.
Yet these are minor flaws against a greater and ambitious whole. Mr Monaghan is a talented storyteller, and infuses a well-worn tale with fresh life. If the characters do feel less than fully developed, particularly the historic figures who are allowed to exist as little more than names, then it is a sacrifice made in deference to the plot.
The clean, terse prose is masterful in setting the novel’s breakneck pace, the vivid scenes keep the reader’s attention, and, at times, the book truly captivates. The result is a neat closure to a highly successful saga, but suggests that there is so much more to come from a writer of considerable ambition.