Combine the words “historical,” “fiction,” and “smugglers” in the same sentence, and most people immediately think of buccaneers and tropical seas. But as Morgan Llywelyn shows in Cave of Secrets (O’Brien Press/Dufour Editions, June 2013), smuggling was also a way of life for ordinary people living under British rule in seventeenth-century Ireland.
Set in the real locale of Roaringwater Bay, the novel tells the story of thirteen-year-old Tom Flynn, who has enjoyed a privileged life in his family’s manor house. However, their fortune is dwindling, and Tom’s father treats him as a scapegoat for his personal and business failings. To escape the unhappiness at home, Tom explores the caves of the nearby coast. There he meets a poor boy named Donal who speaks Irish and mockingly calls Tom a “Sasanach,” or Saxon, due to his English speech and lifestyle. The two become friends, and Tom forms a bond with Donal’s family of smugglers, even joining them on night raids while his own father is away in Dublin. Before long, Tom discovers a hidden connection between the two families that has far-reaching consequences for them all.
Although the novel begins with Tom’s adventures, Llywelyn soon expands the story to explore the experiences of his whole family. His mother’s depression, his father’s political ambition, and his three sisters’ future plans all contribute to the central plot, but with so many threads, some things inevitably fall by the wayside. There are interesting setups for familial conflicts, but the resolution to these issues comes abruptly and the reconciliations (particularly between Tom and his father) are forced.
Llywelyn’s historical details add a compelling extra dimension to the book, despite the problems with character development and plotting. From aspects of daily life to regional history and the English Civil War, her vivid recreation of a specific historical environment is by far the strongest aspect of the novel.