This historical novel is a devastating portrayal of the enormous emigration after the famine in Ireland in 1847. O'Connor brilliantly combines historical fact with poetic fiction as a number of unique personalities journey from Ireland to New York on the Star of the Sea, one of hundreds of vessels carrying Irish passengers to a hopeful new life in America. Written in the journalistic style of one of the First Class passengers, a newspaperman, the chapters portray the tragic, intertwining pasts of particular passengers, representative of the aristocratic English landlords and their tenants, and their relationships to one another. And over the twenty-six days of the voyage, a devious murder plot is set in motion where one passenger is doomed to die at the hands of another.
Among the First Class passengers, most prominent are the Earl David Merridith of Kingscourt, his wife and children and their nanny, the young widow Mary Duane Mulvey. Their spacious cabins offer relative comfort, along with others of the upper class. The poor, in contrast, barely able to scrape together enough money for the worst accommodations, are relegated to steerage, where they endure further brutalization. With scarce food and horribly unsanitary facilities, many of these desperate travelers are claimed daily by disease, hastily delivered to watery graves.
Remarked upon by all is a small-boned man, a cripple, who walks the deck at night, mumbling to himself. Aptly named "the ghost" or "the monster", Pius Mulvey is a degenerate spirit. Where others have overcome dire circumstances, he has fed on his own depravity, skillfully manipulating human kindness. During the worst of the famine, Mulvey travels on foot throughout Ireland and England, committing venal acts whenever necessary, carelessly discarding his victims. In this extreme state of survival-at-any-cost, Mulvey is the "Everyman", the human destruction wrought by the suffering, the mirror through which we view the famine, which leaves at least two million dead.
The Merridiths perceive Mulvey as a pitiful victim of society's evils. He readily ingratiates himself and is drawn closer into their intimate family circle. But the Merridith children's nanny, Mary Duane, recognizes him easily enough from her past and loathes the memory of their association. Indeed, Mary Duane shares a history with both Pius Mulvey and David Merridith, adding yet another layer of complication to these relationships.
O'Connor's writing is impeccable, his illustration of the socio-economic class struggle of the mid-1900's pitch perfect. Star of the Sea serves as witness to the annihilation of millions through starvation while landowners drown out the piercing wails of children with the sound of music and revelry, indifferent. In the case of the Merridiths, led through bad investments to financial ruin, they are forced to forfeit the land their tenants worked for generations, shirking familial obligations in an effort of self-preservation. This microcosm of humanity is gathered together on a ship bound for a new life elsewhere, although hundreds will never reach their destination and one of the main characters will be brutally murdered before setting foot on the docks. Whatever the future for these unhappy passengers, each is forever scarred by the passionate love and abject loss of the land that no longer provides for the living, but becomes instead a vast graveyard for hope.