Across the Water is part two of Jack Byrne’s planned trilogy of stories that examine Liverpool and Ireland’s political and social history via the family mysteries that lie between university lecturer Vinny and his gangster father, Paddy. You might remember John Maguire spoke to Jack Byrne as the first book – Under the Bridge – came out. My excitement was therefore building as the publication date for the next in the series approached. This Across the Water review was slightly delayed by COVID, but I hope it will be worth waiting for! If you haven’t already read Under the Bridge, you might want to save this review for later. There could be mild spoilers ahead, although I’ll try to avoid them…
Across the Water begins with Vinny and partner Anne on the ferry to Ireland looking for information about his father. Vinny always believed his father had walked out on his mother, but the events of Under the Bridge left him with more questions than answers. Meeting his uncle provides important clues as to what his father might have been doing in Ireland and who he ended up working for there.
As in 1970s Liverpool, in Ireland Paddy finds himself pulled between the police and his gang bosses. Ambitious DI Barlow is scheming to break up the trade union movement and influence the Troubles. He’s sometimes opposed to, sometimes in uneasy truce with gang leader Conor Walsh as he runs trucks across the border. It’s an environment where knowing who is on your side is far from easy. In the present, Vinny and Anne’s well-honed technique from the first book of asking awkward questions in pubs soon brings the wrong kind of attention from a local property developer and his hired menace. An old lady Anne encounters may have more to share but they are warned off there too.
While out of the familiar streets of Liverpool’s Garston, Vinny and Anne find that the town of Wicklow is almost a character itself. Its ruined Black Castle on the hill, statues to the heroes of various eras’ fights against the British, and winding tunnels under the streets are vividly conveyed. While reading, I could almost feel the sea spray on my face at times! Both father and son find a welcome from some quarters is not matched in others. Close friendships and alliances are formed and animosities provoked. And as a multiracial woman, Anne experiences the Irish town in a markedly different way to Vinny. Meanwhile, Vinny and Paddy feel the pull of that other city across the waves at times, as so many others before them did.
The sense of uneasiness Paddy has is another vivid detail. It is connected to his past, as he is Irish but from Tipperary, and someone who left and reluctantly returned. Where is home when you are always the outsider, marked by the way you speak, dress or act?
This place was too small for him, family history existed here like an aura, a living thing following people around. Everyone knew everything, that didn’t mean there weren’t secrets, here secrets were not the unknown, just the unspoken. He liked the anonymity of Speke, twice as many people on the one estate as there was in this whole town, easier to get lost.
Paddy has an air of someone who could never settle for long. The reasons why become clearer to Vinny as he follows the long-cold trail of his old man and discovers more about ‘how he lived.’ But while Vinny and Anne uncover quite a bit, sometimes the details are only revealed to us readers. Following a traumatic experience in Dublin, Paddy determines to change his life and makes moves to do it. While dates and places can be tracked down, deeper feelings are often hidden from those who follow along after.
Although this is Vinny’s story, Anne is far from a passenger. Her investigative journalist’s instincts save the day more than once. Her own concerns about staying in Liverpool or leaving to progress in her career conflict with the more settled Vinny. This felt real and current to me and mirrored the earlier stories of migration by Vinny’s family and her own. One reviewer noted that there was ‘a touch of Peaky Blinders’ to Under the Bridge. As with the TV show, the point of knowing more about our family and shared social histories is not to preserve those times in aspic. It is understanding how history informs the future, using the knowledge of past wrongs to better fight injustice today.
There were so many things here that I highlighted or scribbled down to look up later, but reading Across the Water doesn’t feel like a lesson. It is more like hearing stories from a particularly knowledgeable relative. A trilogy’s middle story can sometimes be tricky – not fully coming together for a reader until after reading part three. Jack Byrne has answered some of the questions of Under the Bridge while leaving just enough unsolved. It should make the wait for the third part a tough one!
Why not order a copy from our favourite bookshop, News from Nowhere in Liverpool!
Part 1 of the series, Under the Bridge, is also available in paperback and ebook.