Book Blog Reviews
Kirkus: O’Connor’s debut is a coming-of-age tale of an Irish teen in 1996 who, on learning he’s adopted, plans to track down his birth parents. Cork, Ireland, native Benjamin Hackett celebrates his 18th birthday with “a stack of pints at the local pub.” Awakening the next morning a year older and hung over, Ben returns home to a shock: his parents have decided to tell him he was adopted. He’s understandably upset and wants to find the parents he believes abandoned him and “punch them in their noses.” Enlisting his pal JJ for companionship and JJ’s Fiat 127, Ben heads to the Barnamire Convent in Cork, where he was born. Unfortunately, mere yards away from the convent, the two friends are mugged by a peculiar (but armed) fellow who insists they call him Apache. The nuns, meanwhile, are less than helpful in providing details on Ben’s adoption, and police show up to arrest Ben and JJ for trespassing. Getting the info on his birth parents expeditiously may require Ben to hobnob with criminal sorts and do a few things he’ll surely regret later. All for a potential reunion that shows no indication of being a happy one.
O’Connor forgoes sentiment early on: Ben describes the unknown couple who birthed him as “rancid parents.” But what could have been a dark, dreary tale is sweetened by a surprising amount of humor. JJ, for one, offsets Ben’s ever-present ire with drollery; seeing a “Trespassers will die” sign, he notes, “That seems fairly unambiguous.” There are, however, more sober moments; Ben does favors in exchange for help—often something illicit that could put his life or others’ in peril. O’Connor’s lilting prose beautifies his tale, like a house that “looked nothing more than a teensy white dot high against the rocks with seagulls squabbling over which one of them was due a perch on her chimneypot.” Tackles a serious theme of forlornness with sincerity, buoyancy, and wit.
Readers’ Favorites: “’You’re adopted,’ she said, quick as you like, and slapped her hands over her mouth. The words had barely reached my ears when everything went north of normal. Mam erupted into a shaking mess of tears. Dad recoiled with a feverish look to him; his ruddy face deepening to purple and his eyes enlarging to the size of cue balls.” The Origins of Benjamin Hackett by Gerald M. O’Connor is a refreshing coming of age story that is sentimental, bold and hilarious at the same time. Set in Ireland in the summer of ’96, 18-year-old Benjamin Hackett finds out that he was adopted. He decides to look for his birth parents and drags his friend JJ with him, traveling all over Cork city while facing unexpected problems along the way.
If you think you’ll find another typical coming of age tale among the pages of The Origins of Benjamin Hackett, it’s best to leave your expectations at the door. O’Connor can definitely make readers feel the heavy past of the Irish land which doesn’t just serve as a mere background for the story. That said, despite the episodic heaviness and contemplation, the story isn’t without its heartwarming, funny and respectable moments, making it fascinating and enjoyable to read. O’Connor’s vivid prose is perhaps even more perceptive in quirky moments, and the plot has solid and unpredictable twists. All in all, this is an unforeseen and profoundly moving tale from O’Connor, a satisfying read where the story concludes with a fitting ending.
Portland Book Reviews: “Benjamin Hackett thought the worst thing that could happen to him the day after his 18th birthday was muddling through the day with his sizeable hangover; he was wrong. Finding out he was adopted and that his Catholic, God-fearing parents hid this from him until now, Benjamin is determined to find his birth parents to punish them for abandoning him. Benjamin and his best friend, JJ, head off for a three-day journey of a lifetime. The book doesn’t waste a whole lot of time on characterization – there are no paragraph strings of descriptions to slog through. Instead, everything is organically drawn from the conversations held and Benjamin’s own observations. Despite the expected teenage idiocy, the story never devolves into an angst-ridden brood fest, something many Young Adult books are guilty of being. Truthfully I’d categorize the book more in the New Adult genre due to the surprising maturity of the characters given their ages, a lack of focus on romantic entanglements, and the dramatic and believable changes both characters go through over the course of several days.”
BlogCritics: “The Origins of Benjamin Hackett by Gerald M. O’Connor, is a hilarious coming of age tale that takes place in Cork, Ireland, and is quite unlike any coming of age story I’ve ever read. When Benjamin Hackett turns eighteen years old, his parents rather unceremoniously blurt out that he is adopted. Such begins Benjamin’s search for his real parents, if for no other reason than to punch them in the noses! The journey starts with a visit to Father Brogan, who directs Benjamin to the Barnamire Convent for answers. Benjamin enlists the aid of his best friend, JJ – one, because he has a car, and two, because he’s just an all-around good guy who can’t turn down a friend in need.”
BlessTheirHeartsMom: Having recently read multiple articles about Irish adoption practices and recent changes in Irish law, this book came across my review board at an opportune time! What I was not expecting, was a tale so humorous, that I found myself smiling throughout and rooting for Benjamin and JJ on their quest. Ultimately the reader has an idea where the end may come,and not to give anything away, but knowing the real life history of Irish adoption for that time period, made it not quite such a surprise.But the characters will stay with you long after you finish reading it, and it might just beg a question or two, for those of Irish descent. It’s a worthwhile book, that we highly recommend! And if you do want to know more about that time period- click on over and there are a collection of different articles here to read.
KevinTipplesCorner: “In The Origins of Benjamin Hackett by Gerald M. O’Connor we explore the Irish city of Cork, it’s denizens and characters, and its lively language. Told through the eyes of Benjamin Hackett our narrator is on a journey of discovery a common enough story for many young men turning 18 years of age. Here’s the difference, on this his 18th birthday in 1996, a hungover Benjamin learns from his parents that he was, in fact, adopted. Off he goes with, accompanied by his best mate JJ, to find out the truth of who and why. In the course of this five-day journey we encounter the Catholic Church of Ireland and all of its institutional secrecy, the sport of Hurling (as foreign to some as Quidditch once was), gangsters, arch rivals, distant women and the most dangerous thing of all, family. This is author O’Connor’s debut novel, it is remarkable that his voice is so developed, there is a lushness apparent in both language and dialogue, and an equally well-tuned sense of humor. The ending leaves us with the hope of more, these characters, and especially our narrator deserve an on-going series. Funny, engaging and well-paced, it is a diversion worth your time. Highly recommended.”
ReaderViews: “What an engaging, entertaining read! The words flow effortlessly across the pages, yet with dynamic presence. Not one single word is unnecessary or excessive – each one adds to the brilliance of the story. I love sharp, witty writing, and this story is full of crafty dialogue between the characters. The banter is so off-the-charts funny, I often found myself laughing aloud, and getting the strangest looks from my husband, to which I replied, “You just need to read it to appreciate it.” Honestly, I struggled with wanting to stop and memorize some of the humorous phrases for later use, and staying in the story – of course, I stayed glued to the pages – I just couldn’t help myself! Besides, some of this stuff you just can’t pull off with an American accent!”
ThoughtCrawlersBlog: “While the writing is brilliant, the characters are the shining stars, elevating this already phenomenal story to even greater heights. So relatable and genuine, it was easy to feel connected with all of the characters, from the ill-fated protagonists, to the bit-part characters. Don’t assume to know how this story will play out – the twists and turns will keep readers continually guessing as to how Benjamin will fare in the end. I love that the story includes a bit of everything – drama, love, loss, suspense, and competition, all while enveloping readers deep into the settings along the coast and the countryside of Ireland. It’s hard to believe “The Origins of Benjamin Hackett” is Gerald O’Connor’s first novel. With the exceptional writing, the well-developed characters, and fantastic storyline, it seems this author has a natural gift, and I look forward to reading more of his work. Well done!”
MiriamJoyReads Blog Dec 2016: “Overall, I enjoyed it — it didn’t take me long to read, the dialogue was snappy and there were parts that made me laugh, and it’s got a plot that goes from one complication to another without having a convoluted overarching narrative that the reader is somehow expected to figure out. My favourite kind of plot….”
EroiPentrucati Blog December 2016: “Well, the novel was a speedy and enjoyable read overall. To sum up, I quite liked the fact that was about emotions and consequences and Benjamin Hackett was an attractive character…”
Happiness is A Book Blog Jan 2017: “The opening few pages of the book had me laughing. The writing and language is great, the local lingo and manners of speaking brought me right back to when I was in Ireland…”
Sample Chapter: The Origins of Benjamin Hackett
Whitehaven, Cork, 1996
It was a Saturday in June when life turned its savage eye on me. Up until then, I, Benjamin Hackett, had amassed eighteen years of solid idleness without a bother in the world, bar a questionable name and this itching wanderlust of youth that remained unsatisfied. I was just a regular Corkman lying spread-eagle on the floor of the Brehon Pub, enjoying the mild dementia that sets in after a stack of pints.
A vivid dream had roused me. In the midst of my drunk-sleep, I’d felt my bladder contract and the warm gush of urine flowing as free as the tides, and I swore upon waking I was wet to the neck. When my eyes opened, I padded the ground and sniffed the stout-soaked air above me. No damp patches met my fingers. No fug of ammonia fouled my nose. I smiled weakly at the absence of my nocturnal shame. It was a dream after all—a tiny victory—but I’d celebrate it nonetheless. Morning afters could be monstrous bears.
My throat begged for water. I swept my tongue around my mouth and hunted for spit. The soft lining of my cheeks was crusted. My lips wilted flesh. When I drew in a lungful of air, I coughed from the ash and smoke on the tail of it. Phlegm rattled high in my chest. Something unnatural squealed on exhaling. The night, it seemed, had rusted my lungs.
I propped myself up on my elbows and winced at the glare that met me. The light bleeding in through the shutters was an innocent enough sight. Some might have even called it a blessing—a rare burst of warmth that’d have a man fit for life. But to me, it was venom spat from the skies.
Here it came. The drunkard’s penance. An anvil struck in my skull. I bent forward, buried my face in my hands and cursed. This one had teeth, all right. Big ridgeback jaws on it. The stabbing peaked and then faded, but I knew it’d return with the persistence only time could heal. I’d been this soldier before. The tricksters were simply resting before sending another salvo of pain my way. I nearly cried for the thought of it. Last night was a mistake, and I’d revelled in its stupidity. In truth, I’d little choice but to go along with the madness. A Corkman’s passage into adulthood was much like a wake—drink-filled, mournful and with attendance obligatory. Happy eighteenth indeed. The cost was proving to be huge.
I slunk back down on the floor and coiled my knees to my chest. Sleep would cure me, if it could be found at all. With my eyes closed, I decided to listen to the welter of sounds gathering nearby. Coals hissed in the grate to my right. Drips pinged off a metal sink. A grandfather clock played its march of tick-tocks. All soothing noises, sure enough, but it was the burr of a hedge trimmer outside that lured me. The drone of it was monotonous, hypnotic, and I dialled into the sway of it, praying for its blades to lull me into a trance. And I’d have lain there corpse-like for ages, but when Mam’s warning popped into my mind, I groaned at the memory.
“You’d better be dead or dying,” a voice said. “Because you’ve my pub humming.”
I turned to spy Connie, the barman, emerge from the gloom. The tap, smack and slip of his walk told me his gout must have been crucifying him. Connie and his limp was some sight to behold. He’d claim ground out front first with his walking stick, land the good foot heavy and snap the lame one forward with a quick thrust of his hips.
“Come on and get out,” he said. “I’ve a load of work to do to right this mess before opening.” He folded away the shutters and flung the window open, releasing a scut of a day on us. Drizzle lashed my face. Sunlight blazed my irises. Ripe gusts swept over my skin.
I bolted up from under the table and staggered back from the horror of it all. “A warning would have been nice, Connie.”
He turned and smiled. It wasn’t one of his usual watery efforts, I noted. Instead his expression was borne of pure delight; one of those instinctive eruptions of gums and teeth conjured up by your face before a laugh.
“You really did do it,” he said.
He jabbed his stick out the window. “That.”
I followed his gaze towards Whitehaven far below, past its Market Square with its canopy of trees, past the green copper cross of St Michael’s, past greasy roofs and ivied walls, until the ramparts of the castle appeared, and the whole affair came rushing back to me in fits. The lock-in at midnight: shutters drawn, lights dimmed to a soft beating light, pints and whiskey chasers and that devil’s own chartreuse, rowdy songs of the Black and Tans igniting the flame in us. Then all it took was a drinking bet lost, and off I went half-wild until I was tearing the flag down to the hoots of the lads and running up my clothes to replace it.
I glanced at my reflection in the mirror hanging over the fireplace. Sure enough, there it was—the goddamn parish flag—all blue and red and covered in grime. And wasn’t it wrapped around me like a toga.
“We got a bit out of hand there, all right.” I toed some shards of glass away from me. “Do we owe you anything? For the damage?”
“Don’t sweat it,” Connie said. “I’ve had worse nights. And anyway, you and your friends drank gallons, so I’m covered.” He slipped behind the bar, ran the taps and began gathering up the empties from the counter. “You’re some men, though. Complete lunatics, the two of you.” With a quick flick, he slung a sopping wet rag at my buddy JJ asleep on the floor. It landed with a loud squelch, and JJ reared up, heaving in an emphysemic breath.
“What’s it to be?” JJ asked, waking up at a canter. His words came slick and fast, his legs, though, not so much. He clutched the bar for support and puffed out his cheeks. When the clock’s bell tolled nine times, he gasped and charged for the door.
I smiled wryly as he fumbled with the chain. He’d the air of a man too afraid to slow down. JJ always acted as if he could outrun the misery of his hangover. “Where you racing off to now, Lazarus?”
The latch clacked back and the door swung open. “Work,” he said, shielding his eyes from the sudden shock of daylight. “You coming? I can drop you back en route. If you’re spotted walking home in that rig-out you’ll be skinned alive.”
I clutched at the tattered flag. It was stained with dried blood and beer, and had managed to cling to every sweaty crevice of me. Not the most stylish way to stroll home in the morning. JJ was right—the flag was sacrosanct to Whitehaven. Robbing it was one thing, but soiling it with bodily fluids was a mortal sin to the locals. All in all, the offer of a lift was heaven sent given my current dress.
“I’ll tag along,” I said. “I’m late for my folk’s little tête-à-tête anyway.”
Outside, the weather came at us at from all angles. Sun, rain and wind swallowed us whole. It was a day for all seasons, another schizophrenic summer. We ducked low, sprinted over to JJ’s car and jumped in. His maroon Fiat 127 was a sight. Welts of rust blistered its skin, and the exhaust hung so low it clipped anything heftier than a pebble. But it was the engine that wasn’t to be trusted. Anytime it didn’t fancy the look of a hill, it would throw a tantrum and splutter to a stop.
JJ pulled the choke and fired her up. The Fiat coughed briefly, and we hared out of the car park and down the hill towards town. The welcome sign for Whitehaven blurred past, and a corner jumped up out of nowhere. JJ made a weird clucking noise as the wheels clipped a kerb, and the rear of the car fishtailed violently. He hammered the brakes with both feet, and we jolted to a stop next to two old women who slapped the roof twice in disgust.
“What did we hit?” he asked, panting.
I glanced back and shrugged. “About sixty near the end?”
We both shared a laugh then—a loud rumble in our chests—but it lasted all of two-point-something seconds. My ears thrummed in time with my pulse, and my headache crushed all the fun of the moment. I reached into the glove box to retrieve some of Mam’s arthritis pills. I’d stashed them there the night before as I’d a hunch I would need them. Popping two into my mouth, I chewed until they dissolved into manageable bits. The chalkiness, the unnatural bite to them. The taste was foul, but I swallowed them greedily. They were the heavy-hitters of pharmaceuticals after all. Real morphine-grade analgesics. If they didn’t have me right in a jiffy, the day would be gone to rot.
“So what do your parents want to tell you then?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Who can figure out the minds of parents?”
JJ nodded knowingly, slipped in behind a tour bus, and we coasted downhill toward the quay. “It’s very hush-hush, though, isn’t it? Bit Black Ops and all that.” He swiped dust from the dash. “I’ve a bad feeling about it. If I’m honest.”
I pictured Mam lingering by the door as I wandered out for the night. She was normally the perpetual optimist; always quick with a warm and inviting smile no matter the trauma I conjured. But she’d a rare look of sadness in her yesterday—as if I were tramping off to Flanders to face a hail of German bullets. “Be back early tomorrow morning, won’t you,” she’d said, which was bizarre given how she knew my form on drinking my years in pints.
I slumped back in the seat and watched the quayside slide by with a worm of worry creeping over my skin. “They’ve probably a surprise cake planned or something. Bet when I get there they’ll be crouching under the netting, waiting to pounce with those gaudy paper hats and confetti.”
JJ gave a vacillating shrug. “I’m not sure, Ben. Don’t think your folks are the partying type. Do you? And anyway, your birthday was yesterday.”
I ignored his statement. It wouldn’t do to second-guess my family, and my head wasn’t set for the challenge of complex thought. I cracked the window down an inch, leaving the air rush in thick with the brine of the sea. Despite the sourness of the smell, Whitehaven had its buzz on. Fishermen aboard bobbing decks baited crab traps with practiced hands. Men clustered by the corner-shop and leaned into the weather, their shoulders shifting to the beat of their mouths, sharing a smoke and the gossip. People often commented how Whitehaven had a soulful pace to it; one that would allow a man to tell the time of day by the swell and slide of tides. I could see that easy flow of life in my birthplace, then. The leisurely pace to it all was soothing to me.
A few minutes later we cleared town. Home was less than two miles journeying along a boreen of muck and bramble, so it wasn’t long before we rumbled over the cattle grid and crunched to a stop in front of my farm.
“See you later,” JJ said, revving the engine to stop it from conking out. “Enjoy the cake and candles.”
I stared at our two-storey cottage with its render puckered by the weather and the net curtains dressing the glass. It looked all grey and bleak and ancient, a yawning monument of mediocrity despite the bloom of colour Mam had added with her baskets.
“Do you want to meet up in Brehon’s about seven?” I asked. “I fear I might need a cure.”
JJ nodded. “A sound plan. Best of luck then.”
With a quick salute, I jumped out and strode around to the back of the house. I paused for a moment with my hand hovering over the door handle and glanced seaward in the habit I had from a child.
Our house sat on the brow of an isthmus of land surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. It was a small dairy farm of fifty acres with barely enough grass for our thirty head of cattle. When a high tide rose, it would cut the road off from the mainland, and we became temporary islanders. According to Dad the sea was in our DNA. Had been for generations. But Mam had more of a crawly attitude to it; one borne of old wives’ tales and warnings passed down through generations.
She said the ocean had a way to it, said it could dial into a fella’s future, and a keen mind could tell of portents of ill tidings. She used to stand at the end of the garden and read the rains sweeping over it like they were leaves in a teacup. I never believed those old superstitions, but today doubt slipped over me at the sight below our fields. Clouds hung low on the horizon, mercury black and heaving with badness. They rushed towards land, drawing a veil of black shadow in their wake as they went. The sea sat impassive below them with its waters slate grey and brooding. The Atlantic harboured little respect for the seasons. When the westerly blew over its waters, it’d bite at your skin no matter the month.
I cupped my hands and blew heat into my fingers, smiling as my nerves gave way to sense. There were no hidden premonitions arriving on shore; no secret whispers buried in the bawling wind. Just greyness and gales and piddling weather. And with a shiver settling on my skin, I drew a steadying breath deep into the pit my lungs and stepped quietly inside.
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“The Origins of Benjamin Hackett is a tender tale of heartache and displacement told through a wry and courageous protagonist. Set in and around Cork in 1996, it’s a timely reminder that the world hasn’t moved on just as fast as we fancy. O’Connor doles out killer dialogue that adds oodles of character to this hero’s journey. Told with the lilt and panache of Joseph O’Connor and Dermot Bolger in their novels of the 90s, Gerald O’Connor is the new and improved voice we’ve been waiting for.”Gerard Brennan
“Visceral writing that inherits a long Irish tradition. O’Connor’s narrative contains sharp characterisation, and has an assured voice, while dramatising conditioned guilt with humour and style.”Richard Godwin
“Benjamin Hackett awakens with a hangover the morning of his eighteenth birthday on the floor of his favorite pub in his hometown of Cork and when he arrives home for the birthday festivities, his loving parents have two gifts for him. A brand-new shiny sports car and the news that they really aren’t his parents—he was adopted.
Acting on a clue his parish priest gives him, with his wingman, J.J., he sets off in a rage across Ireland, bound to find out who his real parents were. What follows is a madcap series of adventures with nuns, outlaws, and a series of felonies including burning down a convent and other seminal events. What he discovers is a nuclear shock to his entire belief system and life.
If you’re expecting the usual coming-of-age tale, you’re in for a big shock. This is a tale big on heart and one which the author, Gerald O’Connor, has stuck religiously to the advice of Harry Crews for writers, to “leave out the parts readers skip.” None of those parts remain in these pages. An auspicious debut! Don’t begin to read this late at night unless you have the following day off.”Les Edgerton