Guest review by Janelle Bailey, retired Literature teacher.
I first met Claire Keegan…well, Claire Keegan’s writing…when preparing for a trip to Ireland in 2017 and reading as many Irish authors as I could find, both classic and contemporary. I was pleased to learn of her and read both Walk the Blue Fields and Antarctica…and completely enjoyed both books. In re-visiting, now, my own reviews of them, I note that it is her characterization that is most compelling to me in both, her way of creating believably real and complex “beings” who come off of the page, out of her sentences, and right into a reader’s mind and heart as people worthy of meeting, people from whom we…learn and gain. We may not “like” all of them or value, condone their every choice or decision, but they each contain genuine elements of real people wrestling with life, navigating its many forks in the road, and Keegan manages their becoming quickly compelling and charismatic in both their good and their “less good.” They are all people one would find interesting and perhaps wish to know, then, in many cases, befriend.
Keegan’s sharing of Irish culture and valuably presenting Ireland and its communities over time is a talent and gift as well. Reading her books takes me right back there, to the Ireland I first visited 30 years ago and then re-visited 4 years ago; her descriptions, her conveyance of culture and people, dialect and history and more, lingers long…just like my own travel memories do. One hears again the people and activity…and reminisces…when reading her description and stories.
This newest little book of Keegan’s has been quite well “hyped” this past fall, first as it was pre-sold and then once it was out, my seeing copies abundantly available in every bookstore I’ve visited the past few months, and in unusual fashion as of late, that included multiple stores in multiple states. Having read the book, I understand why.
First, Keegan dedicates this book to “…the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries,” along with “Mary McKay, teacher.” Yet the book is not solely about those realities or very much about them at all, even, but about how institutions like those (the baby homes and Magdalen laundries) impacted so many lives. They did not just impact those who actually lived in or worked in them, but also numerous others who witnessed that others did, lived in those same communities, and wished things to be better.
Second, I loved visiting the Irish setting this book takes us to: the community of New Ross in the 1980s. Its residents/these characters are compelling, and their history and processing of life as it happens for them present an extremely engaging story.
This new book of Keegan’s is similar to her others in that character-compelling way that I described earlier. Bill Furlong might be one of the most interesting–and thoughtful, sensitive, reflective–male characters I have met lately. Sometimes “Bill” and more often just “Furlong” may not be able to always articulate well himself or his feelings in words, but he is quite the thinker and quite the doer of good things in a very altruistic and compassionate way. And he supports his family and is raising his daughters to share those values.
This is a story with elements both sad and beautiful, and I will continue to think about these folks and empathize with their realities as well as others sharing those…for quite some time.