Second-novelist Sebastian (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, 1998) returns with a tone-perfect and powerfully engaging tale of a rural spinster who wonders what life can possibly be for.
Never far from Annie Dunne’s mind are memories and tales of Ireland during the high old days of respect, stability, wealth, and country estates—back before independence from England. For five generations, Annie’s own family had the status of being stewards of the great Humewood estate in County Wicklow—a position that “went from father to son without a break for a hundred years like a proper kingship.” But war, independence, and taxes brought all that to an end, though even then Annie’s father achieved prominence, becoming “chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, B Division”—until he died destitute and mad. Now it’s 1959 and Annie herself, born in 1900, orphaned, deformed by a polio-caused hunchback, unmarried, having spent the prime of her life raising her three motherless nephews, finds the only niche left for her in the world with her spinster relative Sarah Cullen, two years her senior, on her tiny little dirt-poor farm in Wicklow. There, life for the two women is orderly, clean, thrifty—and bone-achingly hard work. When one of Annie’s grown nephews leaves his children for the summer, a boy near five and his slightly older sister, Annie’s entire life seems cast into question again—especially when it seems Sarah might actually marry the neighborhood’s opportunistic Billy Kerr, thus sending Annie away from her last home, to probable penury. Can Annie manage the children, quell her own fears, doubts, and surfacing anger—and also survive the vile taunts that Billy Kerr throws at her secretly for her privileged family past. Over the summer, disaster will threaten and the grace of daily life return as readers will listen, enchanted, to the passionately intelligent inward voice of Annie Dunne.
Continuous pleasures, of character and language, in a book about life itself, with never a false note.