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Long live Titus, the miracle man of this troubled land

Published 08/05/2011

Titus Unlive is the man of Will Donaghoe's dreams. Then the dream comes to life and Donaghoe meets the strange Mr Unlive in his home at 13 Joy's Entry, Belfast. He is a long-time resident - a very long time; Mr Unlive has been the householder there for more than 200 years and sees nothing extraordinary in this, for he goes back much further.

His family were Huguenot refugees from La Rochelle; his father was an apothecary at the court of Charles II. Titus took up that role after his parent's death in the Great Plague of 1665. His duties included the dispensing of Kingsevil oil to the frail and sick.

And here we have the secret of Unlive's longevity. Kingsevil is an oil blessed by an anointed monarch, thought to have the power to cure and heal. William of Orange dismisses this as Popish superstition and bans its use. But Unlive, now serving in the Williamite court, continues its production and brings the oil, and the secret of its manufacture, to Ireland when he takes the post of army doctor for the campaign of 1690. Unlive is appalled at the horrors the war is inflicting on Ireland and stays after the conflict to try to do some good with his wonderful oil, prolonging his own life with regular doses.

The story Unlive unfolds to Will Donaghoe rambles through Ireland's troubled history from the Boyne to 1798 - and a meeting with the family of Henry Joy McCracken - on to the Famine and through to the Second World War and Belfast of the Blitz. All this is interspersed with two other stories. One is the tale of Will Donaghoe's life and loves and not very successful career as an estate agent in Belfast.

The other is of an American businessman, a pharmaceutical giant, who has heard rumours of Mr Unlive's magical oil and hopes to make money from it. He also hopes it may offer the cure to a serious disease from which he suffers.

You think this is complicated? You are right. And it is hugely to the credit of Colin Sloan that he manages to juggle these elements so well, keeping the story moving and holding the reader's attention to the last. At times it gets too much for him; there are passages where it is very hard to follow just who is doing what and the ending seems a rather rushed affair, as though the author, having taken his characters through so many twists and turns, is no longer sure just where they are or what to do with them.

But at its best, this really is an excellent book, unusual and intriguing; a mix of thriller and comedy, with shades of Flann O'Brien in its quirky characters and stories within stories.

It's interesting, too, to try to sort the historical fact from fiction. The events are real and their settings mostly so. And yes, Kingsevil did exist, both as an oil and a healing ritual dating back to Edward the Confessor.

One small complaint. The book is riddled with mistakes of spelling and punctuation. Hyphens and apostrophes are dropped or added with no regard to any rule. Some words are misspelt to the point of misunderstanding - where for were, pale for pail and a hyphenated word, pre-curser for, presumably, precursor.

A pity. A bit of old-fashioned editing could have avoided these irritating errors. Don't be put off, though. If you like your historical fiction spiced with total fantasy you will love Titus Unlive.

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