Too much historical fiction relies on the tragedy of history’s grand sweep overwhelming little lives. Instead, Robert Goddard flips the switch and subordinates historical events to the fates of his protagonists in Long Time Coming. Governments and armies may determine history; but Goddard keeps firmly in our minds that it is individuals who suffer and occasionally even survive it. Humphrey Bogart’s famously ironic “hill of beans” line in Casablanca comes to mind. Goddard’s heroes and villains in Long Time Coming may not be quite as colorful in their parting shots, but they are every bit as compelling.
In this case, the war is World War II, the place London (and later, Antwerp), the time shifting between 1940 and 1976. Two disturbing historical facts set the scene: First, Ireland remained stubbornly neutral during the war; and second, in the years leading up to the war, a handful of Belgian merchants—mainly Jewish—made a killing (the wording is, alas, all too accurate) from the brutal diamond mines in the Congo. The historical data in question would be easy fodder for (respectively) anti-Irish sentiment and anti-Semitism, as they are at certain points in this novel. But the author refuses to make his complex case pliable to any straightforward ethical assessment. Goddard cares only for how this particular person experiences this crisis and is transformed or destroyed by it, according to character and luck.
The Englishman Eldritch Swan—long thought dead—spent 36 years in an Irish prison. Now he and his nephew Stephen must find proof that a set of Picassos was forged. Why is this eccentric undertaking so crucial? How do private passions give meaning to the enormities of history? Shakespeare knew the answer. So did Dickens and Conrad. Now the knowledge has passed to fearless weavers of intimate histories like Robert Goddard.