O'Neill, Joseph 1964-

views updated

O'NEILL, Joseph 1964-

PERSONAL: Born February 23, 1964, in Cork, Ireland; son of Kevin (a construction manager) and Caroline (a teacher; maiden name, Dakad) O'Neill; married Sally Singer (an editor), December 30, 1994. Ethnicity: "Irish father, Turkish mother." Education: Girton College, Cambridge, B.A. (law), 1985; attended Inns of Court School of Law, 1986-87.

ADDRESSES: Office—Chambers of Mark Strachan Q.C., 1 Crown Office Row, Temple, London EC4Y 7MM, England. Agent—Gill Coleridge, Rogers, Coleridge, & White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11, England. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: London, England, barrister and novelist. Called to the Bar, 1987.


This Is the Life (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.

The Breezes (novel), Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.

Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (nonfiction), Granta (London, England), 2000.

WORK IN PROGRESS: My Prisoners, a nonfiction inquiry into the imprisonment of O'Neill's two grandfathers, for Grant Books.

SIDELIGHTS: A barrister by profession, Joseph O'Neill has written two well-received novels. The first, This Is the Life, revolves around a hapless hero, James Jones, who idolizes renowned international lawyer Michael Donovan. After finishing law school, Jones finds work in Donovan's chambers for six months, but, to his disappointment, ultimately fails to secure a permanent position. Jones begins work at a small firm, and years later Donovan calls upon Jones to act for him in a divorce case. Jones comes to terms with his own identity during his torture-wracked courtroom preparations. "People do not have stories, they have lives; they have a spell of sticking around in the flesh, an then they are no more," O'Neill wrote, summing up the book's underlying philosophy. According to a London Observer critic, the change which Jones undergoes from a cliché-ridden and dull character to "fiery self-discovery is wittily and powerfully handled." Eloise Kinney of Booklist considered This Is the Life "a humorous imbroglio of a disgruntled man's fantasies, with Jones coming full circle." A critic for Kirkus Reviews, who called Jones "a sort of Lucky Jim at sea in the law," agreed that the writing was "witty and perceptive," but felt that overall the book was "too drawn out, too carefully crafted, and too repetitive to really stun." However, the reviewer did feel that O'Neill showed much "promise."

Critics noted that O'Neill's writing had grown more cynical with his next novel, The Breezes, published in 1995. As in This Is the Life, O'Neill's second work depicts down-on-their-luck characters who, in this case, are a family who "seem oblivious to the blows which life continually and indiscriminately deals them," according to Times Literary Supplement critic Hal Jensen. Jensen noted that O'Neill seems to be questioning how people even get out of bed, when life offers so much misfortune. Told through the perspective of the son, John Breeze, the story details the various stumbling blocks that his family encounters. His mother is killed by a lightning bolt, his father is a bumbling soccer referee and a magnet for mishaps, his sister dates a loser, and even his dog Trusty runs away. O'Neill's captivating and unique writing style caught the eye of several critics. He "captures our peculiar mannerism and shifting moods with style and precision, and his depiction of the moments when hilarity drifts into hysteria, are always brilliant," according to Jensen. Observer critic Christina Patterson admired the "elegant and witty" prose, while stating she found that the book "explores relationships and survival strategies with poignancy and affection."

O'Neill turned to nonfiction for his third book, Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. Born in Cork, Ireland, the author was always more or less aware of his mixed Irish and Turkish ancestry. When he was eleven, however, he learned that both his grandfathers had spent time in prison during World War II. His family was always relatively closemouthed about the circumstances of each incarceration, so O'Neill decided to research the matter for himself. He published his findings in Blood-Dark Track, which reveals that his Irish grandfather was a member of the IRA terrorist organization, and that his Turkish grandfather may well have been the Axis spy the British imprisoned him for being.

Like his novels, O'Neill's works of family history have met with good reviews. Fred Rhodes in the Middle East thought Blood-Dark Track a "thrilling . . . narrative of murder, paranoia, espionage and fear," while a critic in the Economist concluded it to be "a gripping detective story, a thoughtful enquiry into nationalism, and a moving evocation of world war at the edges of its European theatre."

O'Neill once told CA: "I have a fairly orthodox disinclination to explain my novels, which speak, or ought to speak, for themselves. I can say, however, that my two novels are concerned, to an important degree, with examining the fictions we construct to make ourselves tolerable. Sometimes these fictions can act like shackles—as is the case with James Jones, the hero of This Is the Life. Other times, they are more or less necessary to understand the accidental nature of things. The Breezes—a tragicomedy—explores the limits of the disillusioned life (as lived by the narrator, John Breeze) and of the life sustained by irrational beliefs (as lived by the narrator's father, Eustace Breeze)."



This Is the Life, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.


Booklist, June 15, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. 1932.

Books, September, 1995, review of The Breezes, p. 24.

Economist, February 17, 2001, "On the Edge; Family Loyalties; Family Memoir As Thriller," review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. 496; July 15, 2001, review of Blood-Dark Track.

Library Journal, May 15, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. 44; August, 2001, Robert Moore, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 123.

London Review of Books, March 8, 2001, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 33.

Middle East, April, 2001, Fred Rhodes, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 41.

New Statesman, February 26, 2001, p. 52.

Observer (London, England), May 24, 1992, review of The Breezes, p. 61; August 20, 1995, review of The Breezes, p. 17; August 25, 1996, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. 44; September 3, 2001, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 77.

Spectator (London, England), March 23, 1991, p. 38.

Times Literary Supplement, March 1, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. 21; August, 18, 1995, review of The Breezes, p. 20l; March 16, 2001, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 29; December 7, 2001, review of Blood-Dark Track, p. 8.

Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1991, review of This Is the Life, p. S14.*

About this article

O'Neill, Joseph 1964-

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article