We’ve reviewed many new books, but 2020’s dark horse darling is the powerful, exquisitely written historical novel Divide the Dawn.
Every once in a great while a book comes along that alters my perspective. This one succeeded. I wasn’t familiar with New York City’s history going in, but the intimate relationship the author creates with the characters made me feel at home in industrial-era Brooklyn. The struggle to survive in a world rocked by the Spanish Influenza, bone-chilling poverty and a devastating snowstorm is intensely palpable.
Everyone must choose a side as a gang war approaches. But an existential threat looms over them all: The ghosts of the past. Cinematic, mystical and gorgeously lyrical, right away we learn that this is not a book solely about gangs in New York, but the lengths we will go to feed our loved ones as well as the eternal struggle between honor and power, as a haunting prophecy augurs early on in the book: “T’is dawn when the darkness of the past and the light of the future clash.”
The book has a Dickensian gallery of memorable characters: Honorable and naive Liam, the young Irish immigrant protagonist who ushers us through the underworld. He soon finds himself caught up in a whirl of murder plots, counter-plots, vendettas, blood feuds and double-dealings. Sadie, the gang leader’s wife has run away to protect her son, though her journey takes her to dark places. Anna, a favorite of mine, is a young woman who must bury the love in her heart to make brutal decisions in order to support her twelve siblings. I also love Detective Brosnan, a soft-hearted veteran of Irishtown who sees the snowstorm as a harbinger of horror. Yet they all have one simple goal: To feed and protect their families, a chilling reminder that the line between a hero and a villain is imperceptibly thin when necessity eclipses civility.
In my opinion the story might suffer from too many characters and also features some gruesome violence, but it’s the depth and breadth of style that makes it a superbly sweeping saga. A smart character list in the book helps too. There is also a very practical map of the area that guides those of us who are not so familiar with Brooklyn’s layout.
Based on “The White Hand,” which was a true Irish-American gang of the early 20th Century, the gang members dedicate the “tribute” money it earns to feeding the needy inhabitants of Irishtown, a now-defunct neighborhood along the waterfront. The gang has good intentions (well, mostly good), but are under siege from both its enemies and its allies. Their fate is the fate of all street gangs before Prohibition when organized crime displaced them. The Italian Black Hand, unions, waterfront businesses, newspapers, the police and even a splinter gang are all dead-set on taking the White Hand’s territory and earnings.
It’s been fascinating to watch this book catapult from obscurity to a legitimate contender for best book of 2020. Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Eamon Loingsigh does for Brooklyn what a young James Joyce once did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its cobblestoned streets and crawled its riverine saloons.
Loingsigh has a magical gift for storytelling and Divide the Dawn stands out by virtue of its superbly developed characters and sheer danger that haunts them. Heartrendingly tender moments with helpless personifications are juxtaposed against shocking scenes that shake their realities.
But just as you are getting a feel for the story, a scene occurs that is likely to leave some readers catatonic with shock. (No Spoilers!) It is a scene that is so impactful that it flies in the face of the reassuring “good will triumph over evil” themes that historical novel fans have come to expect and sends you careening through the remaining chapters.
Propulsive and affecting, Divide the Dawn is historical fiction with arresting language, yet the narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense novel. Loingsigh hits the mark and has written a brilliant story that belongs in the elite company of world-renowned classics like The Godfather, The Maltese Falcon and A Game of Thrones.
Still, don’t expect a satisfying resolution. You won’t get it.
Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.