Muriel Bolger is an accomplished journalist and travel writer, and this, her fifth novel, shows that she has also mastered the demands of fiction writing.
In a nice gesture, it is dedicated to the 52,000 girls and women who went through Irish mother and baby homes without getting the chances that saved her fictional heroine Sandra.
The story opens in a comfortable home in suburban Dublin, as Sandra accidentally shatters the glass on her daughter Leah’s wedding photo, revealing an older photograph of two smiling young girls underneath.
Sandra rightly guesses that her kind and protective husband Mal had hidden the picture, as looking at it upsets her, and its rediscovery often seems to precede some upheaval in her life — a life in which, we quickly learn, she has needed the help of a therapist in the past.
Hardly has she finished cleaning up the glass, when an envelope lands on her doorstep amid the usual household bills, addressed in an unknown hand, with an unknown return address: K. Kinsella, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7.
Could this be the lost child she has been hoping to find all these years?
And so the reader is led into the present-day life of the Wallace family: Sandra’s husband Mal, a prosperous accountant; their daughter, Leah, a graphic designer married to her former boss, Adam; her protective younger brother Ollie, and Sandra, a thoroughly nice woman with a shadow on her past.
The sender of the letter is revealed as Kieron, a teacher and father of two children, one of whom needs a bone marrow transplant. It is the search for a matching donor that has led him to overcome his reluctance, and contact his birth mother, whose identity he has known for a few years.
Kieron harbours a strong resentment of the mother who gave him away, and does not want to know someone who rejected him so firmly, and has, meanwhile, apparently done very well for herself.
The story is familiar but well told, as the prospect of meeting Kieron forces Sandra to tell her children about her hitherto hidden past as a 13-year-old unmarried mother.
Gradually, her story is revealed, but the most important question, how did an innocent 12-year-old become pregnant, remains unanswered.
The novel makes an unexpected shift about two thirds of the way through, when the action moves to rural Mayo in 1970, when Sandra Mac Giolla Tighearnaigh is 12 years old, and her older sister Louise is about to be sent to boarding school.
They are the schoolteacher’s daugthers, and their life is dominated by their father’s mother, described by her daughter-in-law as ‘a curmudgeonly old woman’, with whom they live.
Village life consists of a limited circle of acquaintances — the priest and the curate, the doctor, the vet, and the head teacher, Dominic O’Sullivan, the boss of Sandra and Louise’s father.
The change of physical surroundings, to a small country village in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, and the change of era from the cosmopolitan present-day to an isolated, inward-looking society, is matched by a change in language to older idioms — ‘tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence’, for example, which helps to evoke a way of life in which a trusting child like Sandra could meet the fate she does.
Not wanting to reveal anymore twists of the story, I will only add that the one area where it seemed to me one-dimensional was in its depiction of the nuns who ran the so-called mother and baby home, who come across as totally evil with no redeeming features.
Was this the product of Muriel’s research, or was it deemed to be justified by the terms of her fiction? I wonder if all such communities were as dishonest, punitive, and uncaring as the one portrayed here.