This novel takes place in rural Northern Ireland near Derry in 1974, with charming, well defined descriptions of the locale and way of life among the characters that contrast with the harsh realities of both the characters’ pasts and present situations. This is one of the most quiet and poignant novels I have read in a long time, very different in its subject matter and characters. It moves somewhat slowly but in the process, it develops layer after layer of explanation around the characters’ development that makes their reactions to events around them and toward one another more clear than they might otherwise have been.
Jamie McCloone is a small time farmer who has resigned himself to a life of loneliness, but who realizes he wants and needs more to continue living. He has survived to date because he had experienced his uncle Mick’s love and care until his recent death. Now, to cope with both his loss and horrific memories from his childhood before he was adopted by Uncle Mick, he drinks rather heavily and uses Valium prescribed by his local doctor. His only friends are the ever optimistic and cheerful couple, Rose and Paddy, who live down the road from him, and as much as he appreciates their help and attention, at the same time their life tends to reflect even more what he doesn’t have. He tries to repress his history and its effects but too often, and particularly now that his benefactor has died, they overwhelm him.
Parallel to his story, we meet Lydia, who is also single and unhappy and lonely. Although she did not experience the horrendous degradations Jamie experienced, her own childhood was lonely and sad, with no siblings and an oppressive mother and religiously authoritative father who was a minister. They allowed nothing that might suggest she was her own person, although were willing to accept her becoming a teacher, something that was “respectable.” After her father’s death, as the obliging, good daughter, she became her demanding and cynical mother’s caretaker and longed for the day when she would be free of this responsibility.
The story itself begins during one of Lydia’s summer breaks from school, when she is reflecting more on how unhappy she is. Jamie is persuaded by his friends to list himself in the Lonely Hearts section of a local newspaper. Lydia does the same at the encouragement of her one friend, the local librarian. This process is addressed both humorously and sensitively by the author and her characters, and I like the course it takes originally, not smooth by any means and definitely realistic.
The most difficult part of this book was reading Jamie’s memories of his early childhood in a brutal Catholic orphanage, where he endured horrendous abuse, physical and sexual, by those who were supposed to be caring for him; there, he had been known only by a number, 86. Had I not already been aware of Irish institutions such as the Magdalene asylums throughout Ireland (some of which were not closed until the 1990s), I would have thought the descriptions of his life there were dark fantasies from the author’s imaginations. However, I know they aren’t, and therefore am very appreciative of the fact that she was able to describe his horrific life within the orphanage with enough detail for the reader to empathize and be shocked, but with limited graphic description so that it was bearable – though only just – to read. His life there, however, accounted for many of his personality traits so was necessary to go into. The author uses flashbacks, so the memories are not relentlessly long for us to endure, although I did find as I approached each that I was beginning to cringe and wonder how bad this next one would be.
When the two characters finally meet, they encounter a number of obstacles, and the reader begins to think their lives might not be any better for having taken the risks they take. The author, though, has made us so aware of their backgrounds that we understand why things happen and we accept the consequences each time. The ending, which I will not reveal, is not necessarily a happy Hollywood ending but is satisfactory nevertheless and, in my opinion, the only way it could or should have ended. Throughout the book, there are a couple of subtle hints, but I only guessed at the ending very near to it and then wasn’t entirely sure.
This is a story of intense loneliness, overcoming the past, developing love and connection, and the alternatives for ending a hopeless existence, The author has managed to weave an interesting, believable story with humor and empathy and sympathy for her characters. The Irish culture plays an integral part within the story, too, from that horrific childhood Jamie survived to the music, the social life in a pub, the farm and family traditions. It was an interesting combination of everything.
I’ve had a difficult time writing this review because I felt the book and its emotions more than being able to put my finger on any one or number of aspects that made it “right.” I just know that I would recommend it and would hope you feel the way I do after reading it.
(Disclosure: I am of Irish ancestry and many of the elements within the story resonated with me as a result. I don’t think, however, that you need have this background to enjoy it.)