New Release Book Review: A River in the Trees by Jacqueline O’Mahony

A River in the Trees…

About the Book:

A fierce and gripping novel about families, secrets and the impossibility of ever coming home.

Two women.
Two stories.
One hundred years of secrets.


Ireland is about to be torn apart by the War of Independence.

Hannah O’Donovan helps her father hide rebel soldiers in the attic, putting her family in great danger from the British soldiers who roam the countryside. An immediate connection between Hannah and O’Riada, the leader of this hidden band of rebels, will change her life and that of her family forever . . .


Ellen is at a crossroads: her marriage is in trouble, her career is over and she’s grieving the loss of a baby. After years in London, she decides to come home to Ireland to face the things she’s tried so hard to escape. Reaching into the past, she feels a connection to her ancestor, the mysterious Hannah O’Donovan. But why won’t anyone in her family talk about Hannah? And how can this journey help Ellen put her life back together?

My Thoughts:

‘“We are a nothing people to them,” he’d said. “A nothing people.”’

I’ve always had an affinity with Irish history. I got very deep into it when I was in my twenties and read extensively from the famine through to the troubles. I’m still drawn to all things Irish, inexplicably so, but I guess we all have our areas of interest, even if we can’t quite articulate our reasoning. All of this has led to me having a solid grasp on the Irish War of Independence, so I was in good stead for reading this novel. I felt in many ways this was a novel for an Irish audience, or at least for one where some familiarity on the basic details of Irish history would be known prior to reading. The author doesn’t give a history lesson with the pages of this novel, instead, it is assumed the reader will either understand or seek clarification from elsewhere. I actually really liked that about this novel, it made me feel present within the text, as though I had just slipped into their lives at this particular point in time. There are two stories contained within this novel but they are of course heavily connected. There are just as many parallels between the lives of Hannah and Ellen as there are differences. It’s up to the reader to ascertain these threads.

‘It was already completely bright in the room; the savage light was beating against the wall in front of her. There was nothing as depressing as that hard, flat, empty early morning Irish light. It stripped everything bare; it made you feel bleached down to the bone. It was hard to get away from yourself in this kind of light.’

Ireland itself is like a character within this novel. It pulsates with history and its own atmosphere, clinging to the characters with a visceral connection. I have come across this notion before, that the Irish never truly leave Ireland behind.

‘She had never felt fully alive after leaving Ireland. She had never been fully herself, again.’
‘She was broken enough now, finally, to be able to come home.’

One personal tragedy after another has splintered Ellen. She loathes herself, is suffering from a devastating mix of postnatal depression and grief. She might have been prickly and at times just plain cold, but goodness my heart went out to her. The burden of what she had been through. She travels back to Ireland to purchase the family farm that was lost to them in the 1920s. She becomes interested in her great-aunt Hannah’s story, feeling an affinity with her, driven by a desire to take back a piece of Ireland, as though this may fill the void within left behind from all that she has lost. It shows a special skill as a writer to craft a character that acts so unpleasantly, with such self-destruction, whilst also generating empathy from the reader. Ellen was complicated, but my heart was in her corner all the same.

‘They would wipe her out, these men. They wouldn’t leave her room to breathe and she would have to make herself so little and so quiet to fit into the space they left behind them that she would have to get smaller and smaller all the time and eventually – soon – she would just disappear with a small damp pop, like a bubble.’

Hannah was caught up in the Irish War of Independence, which I’ll be frank, at that point in time, if you were Irish born, it would have been near on impossible to not be caught up in it. Ireland has been besieged by troubles for so long, but this particular time was fraught with danger. This war was active from 1919 until 1921, between the IRA and the British Security forces, but the seeds of it had been germinated back in 1916 with the Easter Rising. In 1921, both sides agreed to a ceasefire and Ireland was partitioned, creating Northern Ireland, where British rule was henceforth contained, with the remainder of Ireland becoming the Irish Free State. When we meet Hannah, the war is at its beginning, escalating rapidly. Her family hides IRA men, and they are consequently a target for raids.

‘“Look at my face. Look at my hands. That’s Daddy’s blood on my hands. Do you see it? Do you see what they’ve done to us?”
She put her hands in front of Eily’s face. She tried to turn her face away and Hannah caught her by the shoulders and pinned her back against the chair and then rubbed, savagely, her hands all over her face. Her face was small and as fragile as a child’s; she could feel its little bones compress and crack like greenwood under the force of her hands. It would be easy to break the bones in her face, she thought. She could crush her little face, if she wanted.’

You would not ever be able to live with this and remain neutral. Not when merely existing as an Irish person would have branded you as a target.

‘“They’ve their backs to the wall now, and they’re lashing out at our lads. You can’t put your hands in your pockets now when you’re out in Mallow town. They’ll shoot you on sight if you have your hands in your pockets.” He shook his head in wonder at it all. “Imagine that. Can you imagine being shot down on the road for having your hands in your pockets?”’

This novel is not about who was right and who was wrong. It’s not an historical account of the Irish War of Independence. It’s a story about a family, the hard truth about life and how it doesn’t always work out in the end. Hannah’s story touched me deeply; what a devastating way to come of age. The times were so fraught with danger, from so many fronts, the old world still grasping at everyone’s coat tails despite the modern world beckoning from beyond. You were never really in control of your own life if you were Irish, much less so if you were a woman.

‘The shot echoed around the yard and over the stones and bounced back at her from the walls, breaking the air, splintering the morning light. A cloud of crows lifted from the trees on the hill like so many black rags and spiralled away across the sky, calling back sadly to each other as they did, come away, come away.’

Jacqueline O’Mahony writes with such instinct; her prose is unflinching in its honesty, devastatingly beautiful and so atmospheric, I had goosebumps while reading. I adored this novel, so very much. I recommend it highly, but temper this with a caution as it’s not a happy novel. But often times, the greatest ones aren’t.

‘Every love story is a great love story in the beginning, and then the middle comes, and then, an end.’


Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of A River in the Trees for review.

About the Author:

Jacqueline O’Mahony is from, Cork, Ireland. She did her BA in Ireland, her MA at the University of Bologna, and her PhD in History as a Fulbright Scholar at Duke University, and at Boston College. She has worked as a writer, editor and stylist at Tatler, Vogue and the Irish Independent.
She lives in Notting Hill with her husband and three young children.

A River in the Trees
Published Hachette Australia (riverrun)
Released January 2019

13 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: A River in the Trees by Jacqueline O’Mahony

  1. What a wonderful review Theresa, I’m not sure whether me knowing absolutely nothing about the history of Ireland would allow me to understand the story?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve probably given enough of an intro to the particular troubles at that time here in the review, but you’re very much dropped into a fully formed story, and the deprivation that the Irish were subjected to in the century prior to this war of indepence really forms the emotional background for the story. It also assumes reader knowledge, to a certain degree. For example, they refer to the Tans straight up, but don’t elaborate on who they are. They were in fact the quasi-military Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), known as the Black and Tans. They were ruthless against the IRA and Irish civilians. You get the message pretty quick they are the bad guys, but their place within the conflict is not elaborated on. Have you ever seen the movie Michael Collins? That’s all about this conflict and would act as a good run down. He is an unseen character throughout this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

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