By MARGIE THOMSON

It was a horror year for the Irish. In 1847, as potato blight rotted crops and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and its attendant diseases, thousands more left their homeland forever, travelling on dubious, terrifying vessels like the fictional one after which this novel is named.

Already a bestseller in O'Connor's native Ireland, Star of the Sea is a novel of grand scope which attempts to encapsulate the Irish Famine within a framework of powerfully realised characters and a narrative that twists and turns through their enmeshed lives, to try to present the social landscape of that era in all its blacks, whites and greys.

It contains some of the least glamorous, most powerful writing about poverty I've seen in fiction, and you'll need a strong stomach for some of it, because the line between fact and fiction blurs at times - partly inevitably, given the subject matter; partly because O'Connor includes cartoons and excerpts from writings of that era which show in no uncertain terms the racism of the English towards the Irish; and also because, sadly, one has the occasional feeling that O'Connor has lost control of his narrator's voice and lapsed into polemic, or simply into a patchy unevenness brought on by lack of perfect control of his story.

It remains, however, utterly readable and in places soars to great heights of description, plotting, comic irony and dark tragedy.

The story concerns four main characters brought together aboard the Star of the Sea bound through bitter winter seas to New York. They're all heading into the unknown, yet the further they travel from Ireland, the clearer it becomes that they are inextricably tied to the circumstances that caused them to leave.

The villain Pius Mulvey, who stomps the decks of steerage with murder on his mind, is the best drawn character, his wholly believable transformation from tiller of stony soil to deeply creepy murderer, thanks to his own misdirected intelligence and desperation, is alone worth picking the book up for.

Then there's poor Mary Duane, whose family has farmed its plot on the Kingscourt estate in Galway for hundreds of years until famine tears everything apart and sends her, via various heartbreaks and calamities, first to Dublin and then aboard the Star of the Sea. Her fortunes remain disastrously hitched to those who have done her much wrong.

David Merridith, Lord of Kingscourt, a man with a confusing array of names and, as we discover, sides to his nature which are all catching up with him, is the most unevenly drawn character. In turn a toffee-nosed brute, an insensitive dilettante, and a man of conscience tormented both psychologically and physically, he's difficult to like, impossible to dismiss.

Finally, the American journalist Grantley Dixon, our supposed narrator, through whose newspaper articles the author engages us in polemic: he's got the analysis of the famine all sorted out, yet while we may agree with him (English aristocracy leeches who abjure responsibility) we don't warm to him.

In the background are a cast of other characters: kind aristocrats who tinker with trying to hep their loyal tenants; heartless aristocrats who think nothing of throwing their tenants off the land and into the workhouses; peasants who are honest; peasants who are bigoted and understandably hate-ridden; peasants intent on bloody revenge; others who will sell their soul to the highest bidder.

Charles Dickens, who made his reputation and his fortune writing about poverty, makes several cameo appearances and suffers some clever lampooning in a scene of mutual thievery, where he pays Mulvey to tell him his life story, and Mulvey tells him a bunch of lies about a thief named Fagin who ran a school for young pickpockets and runaways.

O'Connor has kept his mind on his purpose: this is no romantic tale. Love of any kind scarcely rears its head before it's taken away or betrayed.

While some people manage to remain humane, mostly poverty is something that brings the human race low, robs it of its altruism, decency and kindness, and divides people. In the famine, O'Connor reads the warnings for all the troubles Ireland would suffer for the next century and a half.

There are many powerful moments, - but nevertheless a feeling at the end that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Secker & Warburg

$34.95