In 1848 a member of the Irish gentry named Robert Devereaux is convicted of treason and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for publishing articles that advocate the violent overthrow of English rule in Ireland. This novel is purportedly based on the journal that Devereaux kept during his years as a prisoner (1848 through 1851).

It begins when he is transported from Ireland to Bermuda, where he spends many months in a prison "hulk." The authorities have to handle him carefully, though, because he is both a gentleman and a symbol of Irish resistance. They do not want to have a martyr on their hands. Thus, when Devereaux develops severe asthma in Bermuda, they send him to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where he is given a "Ticket-of-Leave"; i. e. he is allowed to live as he wishes in the colony, provided he adheres to certain restrictions and agrees not to attempt escape.

Once in Van Diemen's Land, Devereaux is reunited with other prominent political prisoners. He also meets and falls in loves with Katherine, an Irish Catholic woman, far lower in social class. (Devereaux is a member of the land owning Protestant Ascendancy.)

To be close to Katherine, Devereaux buys a hop farm with an English prisoner named Thomas Langford. The lovers intend to escape to New York together, but Katherine is pregnant. She dies shortly after delivering a healthy son. The despondent Devereaux eventually escapes as the journal ends.


This novel is part of a "diptych" with Christopher Koch's earlier novel Highways to a War (1997). In that book, Michael Langford loses his life while pursuing his lover in the Cambodian civil war in the 1970's. Michael has inherited the Tasmanian hop farm once owned by Thomas Langford and Robert Devereaux, who is actually his great-grandfather, since Devereaux's son was raised by the Langfords as their own child.

The "guilty secret" of his convict heritage was never openly revealed. After the modern Langford's death, a friend discovers Devereaux's journals stored in the farmhouse attic. This second novel is supposedly a faithful transcription of the Irish revolutionary's own words.

However, the book stands on its own, first of all, as a ripping good yarn by a fine storyteller. The novel is formidable in size (over 700 pages), but reads quickly and well. Secondly, it is a fascinating introduction to the situation of mid-19th century Irish revolutionaries, and their plight when transported to English prison colonies. Koch's protagonists are based upon a handful of members of the Young Ireland movement who were actually transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1848. However, the specific characters and events are fictional.

From a medical perspective, the character of Doctor Howard is particularly interesting. Howard is an English Army physician who befriends Devereaux (his patient) and probably saves the convict's life by arranging his transfer from Bermuda to Van Diemen's Land. However, once the two men reach the new land, Howard turns "state's evidence" by supplying the authorities with reports on his conversations with Devereaux. The simultaneous roles of physician, friend, and state functionary lead to a complex, morally ambivalent relationship.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count