Citizens paints a picture of two different Irelands.
The first is 2011, and the disillusioned and disheartened are leaving the country that failed them and moving on to bigger and better things. Neil is one of these people. Or at least he wants to be. His girlfriend, Kathy, has emigrated to Canada, but he had to postpone his flight after the death of his grandfather.
Before he died, he told Neil that he had something to give him, something that would change his life. Neil assumes it’s money, or something that’s worth money, and when his grandmother shows him the memoirs of her father who was part of the 1916 Rising, he wonders if they hold the answer to what his grandfather wanted to give him.
In 1916, Harry Casey is recording the events of the Irish Rebellion on his Pathé camera. He is idealistic and wants to make sure that everything is documented. He knows that what he is a part of will be his legacy, and the legacy of everyone involved along with their families down the generations.
Neil is determined to find Harry’s reels so he can afford to join Kathy in Canada. But as he delves deeper into his family’s past, he starts to wonder if it’s all worth more than the money someone is willing to pay for it.
Citizens didn’t grab me straight away. Neil is an egotistical, lazy character who spends his time drinking, partying and complaining about the state of the country. He’s selfish, and he seems to be visiting his grandmother purely because he thinks the memoirs she has have some monetary value.
The reader is given a bit of background about Neil’s mother dying and his grandparents being the ones to raise him, but there isn’t really enough to it to make you believe that it’s the reason he takes care of his grandmother. If anything, it’s guilt at how he treated them when he was growing up.
The other characters in the novel aren’t any better. Neil’s uncles are even more selfish than him, constantly discussing how much money they would get from selling their mother’s house and not listening to Neil when he tries to talk to them about his grandmother. Neil’s girlfriend, Kathy, is unsupportive of Neil as he tries to find out what’s on the reels. All she wants to know is how much they’re worth and how quickly he can get the money.
A book without any likeable characters wouldn’t normally work for me, but it actually plays an important part in Citizens. It shows Neil’s realization of how important the reels are, and how important his great-grandfather’s legacy is. Neil is the character that changes the most throughout the novel. The more he reads the memoirs and tries to find the reels, the more he comes to see Harry’s and his grandparent’s views on what it means to be Irish. All of the other characters serve to show how much he changes by not changing themselves. They can sometimes come across as caricatures, but it makes Neil’s realization all the more important when everyone around him is cynical.
It does take a while for Citizens to get going, but it’s worth it so stick with it. It’s a good representation of a generation of Irish people who have felt let down by their country and that the only way forward is to leave. It’s not an overly flattering representation sometimes, but it’s accurate. And knowing people who have left Ireland for these very reasons, it’s nice to see an argument put forward about how important it is to be Irish.