Some readers, the kind publishers dream of, may find that "The Emancipist" is a book as big as all Australia, peopled with passionate settlers struggling mightily to build new lives and turn a vast outpost into a homeland.
But here's betting that most will simply find it long -- way too long.
At 1,048 pages, this first novel by Veronica Geoghegan Sweeney is twice the length of other books in the same mold -- Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds," Leon Uris' "Trinity," even Cathy Spellman's "So Many Partings" -- and, unfortunately, not half as entertaining.
The novel, stretching from the early 1820s through Christmas 1879, is built around Aidan O'Brien, an "emancipist," or ex-convict. A fiery Irishman of extraordinary promise and ordinary poverty, he is transported to prison in Australia after being falsely accused of involvement in a landowner's murder, and then rises from the shame to wealth and power in that new land.
The supporting cast includes a lost love, a wife who can't suffer his touch, two headstrong children, an understanding mother and tender-hearted brother forged in Ireland's Great Famine, an earthy mistress, another man's young wife with whom he's obsessed -- and the dark force of the novel, the heir to the Irish estate on which O'Brien begins his life.
So it has all the ingredients of a rich feast to be savored late into the winter nights. But what you find is a wobbly souffle', a creation so full of air you can practically hear its escaping whistle when you crack the book.
Finally, you have to wonder if anyone really read the novel, much less edited it, before publication. There's evidence everywhere that Sweeney either rejected or never got the kind of editing help a first-time author deserves and needs. Maybe everyone just nodded off over the manuscript.
It starts with the copy-editing typographical errors, dozens of them, from the simply sloppy ("ascerbity," "portentiously") to the odd ("naiveity") to the truly embarrassing ("expatriot" instead of "expatriate").
It continues with the absence of badly needed maps -- of Australia and Tasmania in particular -- to position us in the more exotic settings; the author's difficulty with presenting the passage of time; the frequent reliance on extraordinary combinations of events to reap bumper crops of disasters; the presentation of themes of great importance to the author but not to the book -- for example, the pillaging of magnificent trees for timber; and the creation of false-alarm scenes -- O'Brien's mother takes a horrible fall and then, upon regaining consciousness, summons him to her bedside to tell him he hasn't let his daughter see enough of society.
But it shows itself most painfully in the characterizations. The principal characters are incredibly obtuse, either unable or unwilling to understand one another. While that might be a successful device for a while, it becomes maddening over the marathon course of this book. If Sweeney was trying to stretch the envelope, test the outer limits of reader patience, she overshot by about 500 pages.
There are any number of things to be enjoyed in "The Emancipist." The evocations of Ireland as a pastoral prison and the rough-and-tumble life of Australia are often compelling. There are some wonderful touches of wry humor. And occasional elegant flashes of description: " 'Tell me, O'Brien, what is it about the iron industry that interests you particularly? Your background is . . . agricultural . . . I believe.' He spoke as if some soil still clung to the root of the word."
And there is always that great satisfaction -- particularly for anyone with immigrant ancestors -- of reflecting on the gifts we have received, the lives we escaped because of men and women with the desperate courage to sail to a new life.
In the end, though, that's not enough to carry us through a thousand pages.
The author unwittingly pinpoints the reader's problem, when, at novel's end, one character asks: "Will we ever be able to get over it? Knowing we've wasted all these years?" To make a long story short: No.