In the – more or less – beginning of the semester, our Irish Literature teacher gave us all a book to read. I was all excited, of course, since I read a lot last summer and was looking for new books to read, to keep the habit. Well, that didn’t go as planned, since soon enough I got bored with the book (I’ll tell you why in a moment) and my other projects gained importance over this one.
Now, finally, I have finished reading the book and can maybe give some insight into it for those interested. I mean. If anyone out there is doing a project or whatever on this book, you’ll soon learn – if you haven’t already – that there’s basically no info online about it. Not detailed info, anyways. (Or if someone has found something, please leave a comment and a link!) Maybe my simple little ideas can help some other poor soul with their reading, too.
So, what I chose to read was Ciaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea. I admit, I chose it purely because it had a nice, colorful cover.
The first thing I want to say about this novel, and the one thing that made my reading extremely slow, is that the first half – or more – of the book seems to be full of completely irrelevant info. The reading becomes more difficult, at times, than your average Virginia Woolf-stream of consciousness -stuff. It gets better, though, if you manage to get past the seemingly never-ending verbal jungle of saints, dates, colors and random facts about oranges or painters. These random things keep on emerging throughout, yes, but in a much lesser degree once the plot-ball gets rolling.
What is the book all about, then? Well, until just a few days ago, I would not have been able to tell you that. The story begins to unravel only after the middle, and the final aha -moment comes only on the final page.
The main character of Shamrock Tea is Ciaran Carson, who, together with his cousin Berenice and school mate Maeterlinck, discover that he has been chosen from birth to fulfill a ‘sacred’ task. All three children have been given small doses of a drug called Shamrock Tea since they were babies, and now, in their early teens, they have developed abilities above of those who would come across the drug randomly, without prior influence.
At this point I should probably explain better the idea of the drug. Shamrock Tea is a natural substance, the strength of which is compared to that of some harsh drugs such as ecstasy and whatnot. Shamrock Tea is a mixture of several herbs and plants, and no one knows exactly what it consists of. This is the problem. And it is running out. What the ‘tea’ does, then, is make the user more aware of the world. It opens their eyes and mind to see colors as they’ve never seen them before, and the fact that the world is infinite. Time is not linear, for those who use the drug, and neither is space.
There is a sort of cult, the Ancient Order of Hibernia, who has controlled these three children throughout their lives. When one day, the two boys are trying to find information on certain saints in the school’s – which is called Loyola House – library, they come across three books; yellow, green and blue. They soon figure out that these books are but records of their own past, and that of Berenice. Soon, she joins them, already possessing more info on what is happening, and they hear the Order’s plan to send them back in time to retrieve more Shamrock Tea. The actual, final plan, as they then hear, is to prevent a war from happening – or getting worse, I cannot remember for sure right now – by making the whole of the water reserve of Ireland but a nice big cup of Shamrock Tea. Together with its ability of making people see the world as infinite, you see, comes the idea that whoever is under the influence of the drug wants not war, but peace, since it’s the only thing that matters.
As I mentioned before, time and place are not linear when under the influence of the drug. This idea is compared to leaves in a bible; the places and times are so thinly separated that you can tear a whole through the page to move to another time and/or place. This is, however, only possible if the user is placed in front of an image painted by one Johannes van Eyck. He added Shamrock Tea in his paints, so that the paintings have such vividness of color and detail, the veil of time and place can be easily broken.
It is through one of van Eyck’s paintings that most of the travelling happens in the novel, and it is relevant there in many other ways as well, and constantly referred to. This painting is the Arnolfini Double Portrait, or Arnolfini Wedding, or you may use another title, since it has gathered many names over the years. This painting is also the one the Silent Three – as the kids are called once or twice near the end – use in this final mission. The problem is that they arrive in the wrong place, in the wrong time. Instead of van Eyck’s studio, they are presented with a bare room where a soldier is resting. Two Portraits are present in the room. (Apparently it was costumary for painters to paint a copy of the original at this time.)
After the soldier tells the three his own story of how he has been haunted by the painting, the kids have to move on. But, hey, which one is the right painting?
They take the drug, and jump in the images. Here is where the story ends, really. Ciaran goes through a different painting than the other two, and ends up in a world very similar to ours, but where things are slightly different; there is no school at Loyola House (as there is no Loyola House to begin with), and only one Portrait has been painted, for example. He tries to get to the painting, but it is kept behind a glass, and the reflections disturb him, and he cannot go through. He finds himself stuck in this world, but doesn’t let it stop him; he adopts the name Maeterlinck, as a homage to his friend, and becomes Director of the Library in Gheel, a place very significant to the story.
The story, then, as revealed in the last page of the novel, is Ciaran trying to construct his own reality, so that he would not forget who he is, and where he is from. (Think of other ‘circular’ narratives that end where someone is telling their story, like Catcher in the Rye, sort of.) The random facts all through the book are revealed to be ‘circumstantial detail’, as the ones Sherlock Holmes uses to deduce what has happened and who has done it.
There are plenty of references to other famous people in addition to the countless saints mentioned. The book talks about Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wittgenstein and Oscar Wilde, just to name the most often quoted.
All in all, I’d say it’s a book worth reading, as long as you manage to stumble your way across the first half without losing your mind completely on the way. There’s some truly interesting facts there, in the midst, don’t get me wrong. But for someone who skipped the color, fabric, jewelry and all those descriptions in Dorian Gray, these little facts were just way too much. I also don’t appreciate it very much if the plot starts halfway through, only. It makes a book too slow in the beginning, and too fast in the end. It always ends just when things get really going. I had the same problem with Dickens’ Great Expectations.