The Penance Room

Carol Coffey

“I have a caring nature,” she says, when we meet in the Merrion Hotel. “I knew, from years back, that I wanted to work with people who were ‘different’. I remember, when I was young, a girl on our road used to chase us for sweets. Everybody was a bit scared of her, but my grandmother urged me to stop and talk to her. I thought what an isolated life she must have led.

“My job was to work with people who had a learning difficulty and a psychiatric illness. I helped find them jobs outside the hospital. I learned an awful lot there. I felt I was helping as much as I could.”

At 23 Carol moved to Australia. But she continued in her caring role. She worked in nursing homes. During the day, all the residents were shoved together into one large sitting-room.

“I started to notice them all. Some of them would have been on opposing sides in war. Some had forgotten their English and only used their first language. There were different nationalities; different religions; people who would normally not mix together at all. I began to realise they all had interesting stories. I was fascinated by that.”

Carol has since taken a degree in special education. She’s worked in Australian schools and government agencies. She’s married a man from Co Mayo and, after 10 years in Australia, returned to Ireland. The couple now live in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow.

Since her return in 2000, Carol has worked full time. She’s also written a novel based on autism. But she never forgot the effect those old people in Australia had on her 23-year-old self. She’s used the experience to startlingly good effect, in her latest novel, The Penance Room.

Set in Australia, the novel focuses on a family-run nursing home, aptly named Broken Hill. The story is narrated by the couple’s 13-year-old son, Christopher. He’s deaf and haunted by a train accident in which he lost his foot. A strange yet perceptive boy, he’s determined to help the troubled residents.

When Steve, a research student, asks if he can interview the old people, Christopher is excited. He believes once the residents’ stories are told, all of them can rest at peace. We learn that Mina, who hides food, was once imprisoned by the Japanese. That the reclusive Wilfred was a teenage Nazi. As for the eccentric sisters, Victoria and Penelope, there’s a good reason they’ve never truly embraced adulthood.

The residents aren’t the only ones to harbour secrets. The nurse, Aishling, it turns out, was rejected by her family in Ireland after an altercation with a priest.

“There were a lot of Irish people in Sydney who were running away from something, and many are still there. They never even come home for weddings or funerals. It struck me that one little event can completely change the course of your life. It can go down paths you never imagined.”

Central to the novel, though, is the issue of blindness and the effect of their son’s impairment on the nursing home’s owners, Emma and Andy Monroe. Does Carol feel compelled to write about disability in some form?

“Yes, I do like to because there are so many myths out there and I really do want to get the message out. When in my first novel I wrote about autism, I wanted to show that the condition isn’t always as it was portrayed in Rainman. I wanted a more realistic portrayal.”

Carol has now completed her third novel contracted with Poolbeg. Yet she’s still working full time – for the National Council for Special Education, allocating resources for children with special needs. Not only that, she’s taking a masters degree too. So how does she fit everything in?

“I spend a lot of time upstairs on my computer, writing and doing my course. I write in the evenings and at weekends,” she says. “And in any holiday time I get. My husband, Dave, is very understanding. He’s my first reader, and he’s easygoing. I’m very lucky. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve known that since I was 10 years old. But then other things got in the way.

“I began in 2004. I was recovering from major surgery. I was told I’d be at home for six weeks, but it ended up being three months. I’m used to having a busy life and I couldn’t stick the thought of sitting around. Then I thought this is my chance to write. I began and it just flowed. By the time I returned to work I had a third of the first book written.”

When she’d finished The Butterfly State, though, she hadn’t the courage to send it off. It sat in a drawer for four years. Then she thought, at least if I send it to a publisher and they say ‘no,’ I can say, ‘I had a go and it didn’t happen.’ So she sent it to Poolbeg, who requested some changes, and then she got the three-book deal.

“I’m so lucky,” she says. “I’ve achieved my lifetime ambition. In the future, I’d like to write full-time. But I don’t know how realistic that will be.”

Reaction to The Penance Room has been positive. What does Carol hope readers will gain from her story?

“I’d like them to think about ageing. My sister had the ideal reaction. She said she really enjoyed the book and that when she visits elderly relatives, she looks at all the residents, and wonders what their lives were like. She said, ‘I never thought of that before’.”

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