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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 24 March 2017
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on 20 July 2017
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on 3 September 2001
As if I have just woken from a dream: a novel read over the weekend. Against an utterley convincing historical backdrop, O'Neill has portrayed the love, true love, of two boys for each other. An emotional & sexual understanding grows at the same time as a politically conscious one. Personal loyalties are bound in with the whirlwind of change that saw Ireland of the 1910's move from King & Empire against the Kaiser to various shades of green. There have been comparisons to Joyce, indeed much is Joycean as we know it. The erudition, the word play and a familiar rhythmic Irish re-arrangement of the language. But in the end novels must stand their own stand. This one is full of joy & sadness, full of revelation & change for all the main protagonists but most of all for young Jim & Doyler.
Those are my thoughts. But how do I say in a few words what it made me feel? How it made me cry and laugh and yes, see! What images played in my mind as I tried to close the cover but couldn't lift my eyes from the final words? I can't. Only Jamie O'Neill's can do that. Read them. Give up your weekend.
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The first seventy pages of this huge, eloquent, and multi-layered novel require the reader's patience--it is not always clear, at first, who the characters are or exactly what they are doing. But patience is gloriously rewarded as the cadences of the characters' speech, with its street slang, odd syntax, natural poetry, and homespun aphorisms, combine with vibrant details of their everyday lives and eventually bring these "ordinary" folks to life in Dublin in 1915.
On the eve of the Easter Rebellion, we meet Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, two teenage boys who are trying to sort out who they are, emotionally, politically, and sexually. They get no help from home, where their fathers relive their memories of fighting for the British during the Boer War and where sex and the facts of life are never even hinted at. They get no help from their priests, who severely punish confessions of "the solitary sin," while sometimes fondling their students. Secret revolutionary societies troll for members, and priests sometimes help them. Neither boy has close friends his own age. As naïve Jim gravitates toward the more street-wise Doyler, their friendship blossoms, they rejoice in each other's company, and they begin to try on roles for the future--Doyler finding an outlet with Irish rebels, and Jim considering a priestly vocation.
It quickly becomes clear to the reader that this will be a gay coming-of-age story within the broader context of the Irish rebellion, and these two stories mesh seamlessly, with many obvious parallels. Quietly, without beating any drums or making any polemical statements, O'Neill allows his characters to discover their feelings for each other and their inborn nature, even as the political rebellion takes shape. O'Neill's characters are who they are, and he respects them and the reader too much to use them simply to prove a point. The parallels he draws between them and some of the famous leaders of the Irish rebellion, such as Roger Casement, and between them and the Sacred Band of Thebes are incidental to the story, though they do give a broader context to the gay relationship.
The only problem I had with this engrossing novel was with the character of MacMurrough, an older "mentor" to both boys. MacMurrough is a sexual predator, at least at the beginning, a man guilty of violent rape in a graphic early scene which made me cringe. The fact that he is later depicted sympathetically, and to some extent heroically, remains a problem for me, an anomaly in what is otherwise a beautifully wrought novel. Mary Whipple
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on 10 February 2010
at swim, two boys is the most beautiful book i have ever read.

i found it on amazon some years back and to this day i have never read anything so captivating and heart-gripping as it. i cried for at least half an hour after i finished reading it. partly because i felt the sadness of the ending and partly because of the sadness of ending such a beautiful book.

it's true when critics comment on the quality of the writing as being amongst ireland's finest. every word is carefully thought out. it is beautiful to read.

to me i see the first opening words as a rhyme, to break the reader in. it seems challenging for new readers. the language seems odd, but truly intellectual if you read on.

the worst thing about the book is knowing that it will end. you are so gripped by every word that you wish you could read more and more and more.

to jamie, congratulations. you have written the most beautiful book i have ever read, and probably will ever read.
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on 10 September 2016
I couldn't get past the excruciating first chapter. Pretentious writing which lacked authenticity despite the contrived style.
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VINE VOICEon 28 August 2006
I was eleven the first time I read a truly sublime book: the kind that tells a truth so compelling that it blinds you to the parallel knowledge that it is something special and, in the most devastating sense, unique. Inevitably, when I turned the last page, I was someone different. I didn't know the word `epiphany' then. I only knew that that book had slapped me in the face, touched me to the quick, and for a while, thrown everything into a clearer light.

But from that day onward, I read in hopes of finding another such book. Twenty years on, despite my novel-a-week habit, I can still count those that qualify on one hand - and this is by far the best of them. Long live Jim & Doyler!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 August 2009
The year is 1916, the place Dublin, and two young boys, one the son of a shopkeeper, the other a rough street boy. Watching over the two boys is a young self-centred man of the privileged class.

The two boys, Jim and Doyler were school friends before Doyler left school and moved away, and Doyler has a very soft spot for Jim. When Doyler returns and meets up again with Jim, still at school, he offers to teach him to swim out at the Forty Foot, a large rock where gentlemen bathe without the benefit of any costume. They make a pact that within the year they will swim to the distant Muglins Rock. At the same time Ireland is tied up in its troubles, with war raging in Europe and the rumblings of the battle for the countries independence, the two boys cannot remain unaffected.

But very much involved in the destiny of the two boys is Anthony MacMurrough, the nephew of a well to do Irish family, fresh out of a stint spent at his majesties pleasure in England for his illicit activities with another young man. Seemingly self centred and led by his inclinations, he strikes up a 'relationship' with Doyler, paying him for his services, and even trying to improve the young man, but Doyler is not to be one over, and even warns MacMurrough not to lay a finger on Jim. Yet in Doyler's absence MacMurrough watches over Jim, even makes sacrifices for him, and teaches his to swim.

Providing light relief to the proceedings is Jim's bumbling father, Mr Mack, the aspiring shopkeeper who somehow unfailing manages never to get it quite right.

At Swim Two Boys is a hauntingly beautiful story. It is told in turn from the perspective of the various main protagonists, and the style of writing changes accordingly. The relationship between the two boys is most touching; street wise Doyler longing for intimacy with the naive and innocent Jim, but unsure of Jim's inclinations. By contrast Doyler gives MacMurrough whatever he wants, and receives recompense in return. Yet through it all it is perhaps MacMurrough who grows the most, and his loyal attachment to Jim may be the making of him. A deep and most pleasurable read, highly recommended.
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on 13 September 2002
I always knew there was something special about this novel. Even when I first read the reviews of the original hardback upon it's original release. Now, months later, I have just finished At Swim Two Boys and it has left me in floods of tears. No other novel has had the power, the courage, the conviction, to touch me like this has and it is a credit to the wonderous Jamie O'Neill that he has managed to produce such an emotive epic. No it's not an easy read at times and I wish I was knowledgable enough to know more about Irish history, that way I would have fully understood the times this novel explored. But, and this is an important but, it didn't stop me getting enthralled in the characters lives. Jim Mack & Doyler, oh, they seem so real to me, so utterly in love that I was literally savouring every moment that featured them. O'Neill also has this marvellous way of producing Irish dialogue that sparkles off the page, especially with Doyle and the words he uses to communicate with the love of his life; 'Pal Of me heart', 'Are you straight?' 'Are we straight?' All these words, and more, they're still with me now and will be for a long time to come.
I urge you to read this wonderful novel and I look forward to a brave Director putting it onto the big screen one day without sacrificing the love between these two sixteen year old boys that is at the heart & soul of At Swim Two Boys. There's a reason why Jamie O'Neill was paid so much for this novel, and it lies in it's future, for this is a book which will become a modern classic, a story to be read time and time again by generations to come. It's a shame it had to end really - O'What Cheer.
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on 30 August 2005
This is a big, satisfying, and engrossing read. The book fully deserves it's recent inclusion in the shortlist of 'Big Gay Read' titles.

The very first impressions from the first few paragraphs are that it's going to be difficult: the language appears awkward and this makes for slow-going. But you quickly come to realise that this is a device to help you get into the atmosphere of early twentieth-century Ireland. You don't have to 'work' at the language; it soon starts to flow.

It's a long book and this allows for great characterisation. The interplay between the two boys is superbly crafted. The adult relationships are beautifully handled. The story-telling is compellling. As you approach the end, my emotions were fully engaged at several levels. It left me feeling angry, despairing, and yet also moved by the emotional intensity of the relationships.
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