I often use a scrap of paper as a bookmark, scribbling notes as I go, little breadcrumbs that I hope will lead back to the heart of the book after I’ve read those last few pages.
Retraced in black biro, the reminder that stands out for me with Dan Sheehan’s novel Restless Souls is “unpredictable”. Because one of many things I enjoyed about the book was the fact that I had no clue where the author was taking me.
I don’t mean in a “who-dunnit” or “why-dey-doit” fashion. It’s more along the lines of how the author isn’t wholly committed to one particular genre.
Although a decision like this carries the risk of unruliness for a book, it must also offer a writer the freedom to take their favourite elements from a number of different styles and just say to themselves, “What the hell, let’s just see where it takes us.”
Sometimes you just have to go along for the ride. And so much of Restless Souls is about just that: movement. A thrust into adulthood. The arc of relationships, some turning back on themselves, others lost. A voyage through adversity, the aftermath of tragedy and the complexity of changing friendships.
The thread that binds all this together is the journey of three childhood friends from Dublin to California, Tom, Karl and Baz, hunting for the improbable cure for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Set in the ‘90s, the narration progressively jumps between two timelines. On one hand, we have Karl’s perspective on the American expedition; on the other, we are with Tom and his former experiences in the Balkans, which initiated the trip in the first place.
When we meet Tom at the beginning of the American journey, he is a broken man. But once he had been an individual who hungered to make a difference, a man hunting purpose. The outbreak of war in the Balkans had been too much to resist and he made his way to Sarajevo without a concrete plan on how he was going to help when he arrived.
Tom tells us how he masqueraded as a reporter (more through the act of vagueness than lying), growing close to a local family as they tried to survive a sieged city. Through his relationship with heroic doctor Jelena, he witnessed the human cost of the conflict and the isolation that comes with it.
Sheehan treats the topic with real attentiveness and honesty. The descriptions of hardship are unsentimental, the violence blunt. We see how Tom was gradually worn down by the horrors, the mood of the outsider captured in the process, his emotional reaction to a constant bombardment of news, an eagerness to make a difference, the feeling of helplessness and the guilt that comes with watching from the sidelines.
Karl and Baz have taken on the task of shepherding their damaged friend to a clinic on the west coast of America called Restless Souls. It’s a treatment facility for war veterans, managed by Dr Saunders, a veteran himself who claims that he “lived a sort of half-life” for years before his epiphany to save others just like him.
Located on a secluded Cliffside resort, Restless Souls offers a list of “now famous” recovery techniques, most of which are “Happy Clappy Yank Spin” to the unconvinced Baz, for whom the trip is predominantly a desperate attempt to help a friend.
Karl’s motives are somewhat more complex. His life went into free-fall when the fourth member of their group, Gabriel, committed suicide some years before, leading to the breakdown of his relationship with Clara. For him, this trip holds an opportunity to counter his failure to save Gabriel and bring him closer to ex-girlfriend Clara (geographically at least) while also trying to recapture the good times of the past.
The journey isn’t a straightforward one. They take a wrong turn out of LAX and are forced to sleep in a car in the outer reaches of the Mojave Desert before the route takes them along dangerous cliff territory. They spend time in a hippie commune in the “sunny Middle of Nowhere” and elephant seal-watch just outside San Simeon.
Throughout, the shadow of Tom’s fragile state hangs over them and the threat of further mental erosion or one final implosion. They carry past relationships with them, like the separation of Tom from his mother and the breakdown of Karl’s relationship with Clara. There is plenty of scope to expand on these and certainly Gabriel and Karl’s experiences in the fostering system might have been explored more.
For me, the passages relating to their younger selves are where the book shines, such as a scene where the gang rob a bottle of whiskey from a supervisor while in the Gaeltacht. There is no shortage of humour in the book, much coming from the dynamic between Karl and Baz and the latter’s skewed philosophies on life.
The dialogue balances out the sombre themes nicely and works to capture that “waffling” nature of the Irish, their need to constantly distract, a willingness to circumnavigate the whole world rather than sit down and have a conversation about a real issue. And it’s in the banter where we see the closeness of the trio and an unsaid awareness of each other’s role within this tribe, which although imperfect, works as some comfort to Tom through its familiarity.
Early on in the book, in the home of Tom’s mother, Karl describes what’s left of the gang as “a frayed patchwork quilt of a family”. And this captures so much of what the book is about.
It’s this patchwork of genres and themes and characters that the author has somehow managed to work into a colourful and emotive spread. It reflects that time in life when the realities of true independence are finally sinking in, as well as a growing understanding of the fallout from a tragedy.
There is sense throughout that the characters are journeying toward the impossible notion that, through reconnecting, they might somehow reverse time and return to the people that they were before tragedy struck. As is often the case, journeys like this are not as much about reuniting or reconnecting as they are about saying goodbye to what once was.