Poet John Boyle O’Reilly referred to the Atlantic Ocean as a bowl of tears to reflect the
dangerous flight to America - specifically Boston - risked in infamous ‘coffin ships’ by
many of his countrymen during and following the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s.
The mermaid in question is Pamela Riordan, devoted wife of Casey, whose
involvement with the IRA is very nearly written in his DNA code, a family heirloom
handed down through the generations.
This book is a sequel to Exit Unicorns, which I read and enjoyed in 2005. It opens in
the city of Boston, to which Pamela and Casey have escaped the pervasive violence of
Northern Ireland of 1968. We find Pamela flourishing and Casey foundering, both
assistants to a powerful political leader. Boston was believed to be a safe haven for
Casey; it proves to be anything but, as Pamela finds herself pitted between two rival
factions in an effort to keep her husband alive. She compromises her soul when she is
coerced into espionage for the FBI, a poorly devised plan that abandons her as mere
A hasty return to Belfast does not spell the end of perilous intrigue. Casey is quickly
reunited with someone from his past: Robin, whose troubled and deadly background
insinuates itself into more than one aspect of the Riordans’ lives. The truth behind the
death of Casey’s father, Brian, is harshly revealed as Pamela risks her life to get answers
for her adored husband. Lawrence, a street urchin whose young life is indelibly marked
by abuse, finds refuge with the Riordans. Hardened beyond his years, Lawrence finds his
way into everyone’s hearts but is unable to escape his own history that is always only
one short pace behind him.
Casey and his brother Patrick become trapped within the English legal system, whose
methods of extracting information are tortuous and legendary. A surprising champion,
David, with a dangerous secret of his own, emerges in the midst of chaos to offer aid to
Patrick. Pamela finds herself alone and vulnerable more than once in this story and again
seeks assistance, reassurance and comfort from the charming, enigmatic and well-to-do
MP Jamie Kirkpatrick.
The fast-paced story weaves its way through shadowy politics, wicked depravity, dire
risks, faith and its lack, and above all, toxic secrets. Yet layered between the often
painful, disturbing storylines are lighthearted moments of humor, music, and the special
kind of magic that can only be found in Ireland. Serving as backdrop to the personal
stories is the violence of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. The dialogue is crisp and
genuine, the characterizations rich and varied, and the prose often inclines toward
the poetic. A skilled storyteller, Brandner does not spare the reader from the savagery that
men can do.
While it is not necessary to read Exit Unicorns prior to reading Mermaid in a Bowl of Tears, I recommend it in order to fully appreciate the complex relationship among
Pamela, Casey and Jamie. I found it a gripping novel that easily merits 5 stars.