Reviewed by Donna Ledbetter
In the early 1900s, Ireland was at war with itself. Back then, under British control, half the nation fought to be free, while the other half fought not to leave. In the latter part of the war, former Irish soldiers were recruited to fight for Britain. These men were the Black and Tans, so called for their multi-colored uniforms made from a combination of dark green army trousers and the brown caps, belts, and tunics worn by the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Black and Tans were severe with the Irish people, but they nonetheless came to be regarded as heroes in some parts of the country.
Today, Ireland is split. In the north, there is the Irish region that is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. To the south, there is the Republic of Ireland. These nations, like feuding brothers, color the backdrop of Danielle McLaughlin’s A Partial List of the Saved. She uses this history to great metaphorical effect to characterize the dynamics of families and breakups.
A Partial List of the Saved tells the story of Connor and Reese. As the story opens, it is just a few months after the couple has divorced. To Connor’s family, it’s a secret, so when he must visit the family in Ireland to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, he asks Reese to come along. When they arrive, Connor reminisces about the old times he had with his wife: the summer by the lake and the statue of the Black and Tans that they’d visited once before. When they arrive at his boyhood home, Connor finds that his father Dennis is now in a relationship with Agnes, a woman who was his neighbor growing up. He’s devastated and asks Agnes not to marry his father. She already has other plans, however. She’ll be moving to Cambria soon to live with her daughter. Of course, Dennis doesn’t know that yet.
Like a country being torn from the inside out, Connor’s family is full of secrets and people lying to themselves and others. By the story’s end, you wonder whether there will be any ties left that won’t be at risk of breaking.
Despite the story having received the 2019 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, you can walk away with mixed feelings at best about both its plot and its writing. Without context, you may find that A Partial List of the Saved reads like a very uncomfortable story about a bitter man’s divorce. Then you might be shortchanged. A closer reading might change your mind to see a thoughtful account of unrequited love as perhaps the author had intended.
Despite its ambiguity, the story has numerous redeeming qualities. It’s perfect for armchair travelers and Hibernophiles, with its many references to Ireland and Irish history, including the Irish Civil War and that most famous of big ships, the Titanic.