It may have taken 10 years and 200,000 frequent flyer miles, but local author J.S. Dunn’s first novel “Bending the Boyne” is proving to have been worth the wait.
Recently chosen as the first place winner for historical fiction at the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Dunn’s 319-page epic is more than a great story — “Bending the Boyne” is a challenge to readers and academics to reconsider history.
Set in Bronze Age Ireland, Dunn hopes the book will challenge perceptions on the role northern Europeans played in the development of institutions we currently attribute to Greece and Rome.
“It (the book) really does represent a paradigm shift in archeology,” Dunn said, adding, “at the point in time when ‘Bending the Boyne’ is set, Greece and Rome didn’t exist.”
And if anyone has done their research, it’s Dunn.
Originally an estate and family dispute lawyer, Dunn became fascinated with the passage mounds in Boyne Valley, Ireland, during a trip to Europe. These mysterious ancient megaliths — which predate both the pyramids and Stonehenge — and the people who made them, would become Dunn’s obsession for the better part of the next decade.
So much so that she actually bought property in Ireland, and was soon spending 30 to 40 percent of her time across the pond, gathering research for the book.
“Bending the Boyne” was actually conceived as a narrative nonfiction book, but potential publishers pushed her to reconsider the concept into fiction.
“That set me back a few years,” Dunn joked, adding, “The first (Microsoft) Word document was started in 2001.”
But all the research she’d done wasn’t for naught. The book is brimming with authenticating details that add intricacy and legitimacy to the fictitious tale. From in-depth descriptions on ancient metallurgy to correct chronological placement of ancient stone tools, the book’s pages are brought to life with Dunn’s astounding depth of knowledge on the subject.
Which hasn’t gone unnoticed by experts. Peter Clark, a member of the Institute for Archaeologists and deputy director of the Canterbury Archeological Trust in Kent, U.K., read the book cover to cover and offered his praise, stating the book was, “Bang-on with the latest archaeological debates.”
But despite the book’s heavy emphasis on facts, “Bending the Boyne” doesn’t read anything like a textbook.
The plot is a story that has repeated itself throughout history in many places and times — a peaceful nation must defend their people and way of life against pillaging invaders bringing weapons and disease. What makes Dunn’s tale unique however is how she deftly builds relatable characters and threads the book with a series of “can’t-put-it-down” plot twists.
Chapter one opens with Boann, the book’s female protagonist, surveying the shores of her beloved Eire as a boat of invaders appears on the horizon. This boatload of trouble promises to threaten her people with their unquenchable appetite for precious metals like copper, tin and gold. In an attempt to bring peace, Boann agrees to marry the ne’er-do-well leader of the invaders, Elcmar, who then banishes her lover, the handsome and enigmatic Cian, to the mainland continent. Fifty pages in, the book is off to a rollicking start.
And while the plot makes “Bending the Boyne” a quick read, Dunn suggests that the book is best when savored slowly.
“There are close to 100 embedded references in the book,” she said, rattling off a list of writers like Yates and Swift and contemporary Irish author Patrick McCabe. Plus, “Bending the Boyne” pays tribute to mythology from the region. Most of Dunn’s character names such as Boanne, Cian and Elcmar are taken straight from local folklore, while several of the book’s subplots are spinoffs of myths as well.
But not all the references are ancient. Dunn has peppered the book with analogies to modern Irish life that Irish readers recognize immediately. She pointed out one example from the end of the novel. At this point in the book, villain Elcmar has acquired an enormous amount of debt due to his passion for lavish gold objects and finery. A situation that Dunn noted “is kind of ironic due to Ireland’s current financial situation.”
For a first time novelist, fans and reviewers have said Dunn has done exceptional work weaving together multiple storylines, embedding unique references and building strong, human characters. Which comes as no surprise to the book’s original editor, Vinnie Kinsella, who saw Dunn’s talent from the beginning.
“She created some wonderful characters. In my opinion, it’s her characters that balance everything out. I cared about the details of their daily lives and of their surroundings because I cared so much about them,” said Kinsella about his work editing her original manuscript.
Which leaves fans of historical fiction, and fans of “Bending the Boyne” in particular, hoping they won’t have to wait another decade for Dunn’s next novel.