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A deft if unshaded celebration of the usual strong and beautiful woman taking on an abusive husband, famine, and political rebellion in the Ireland of the 1840s, where the people are dying while their British landlords sit idle.

Vivid historical detail gives the story of beautiful Gracelin O’Malley, who lives with father Patrick, disabled brother Sean, and grandmother Granna on a small farm, greater texture, but the cast, though sensitively drawn, stays hostage to the demands of the plot. Gracelin’s mother died in the accident that maimed Sean, and the family has never recovered from the loss, though Granna and Gracelin have tried to keep things going. But times are hard, the harvests are failing, the British keep increasing the rents, and those who can, leave. Gracelin, a loving daughter, doesn’t protest when her father arranges for her, at 16, to marry their wealthy British landlord Bram Donelly in exchange for canceling the family’s debts. Bram's been married twice before, with both wives dying in suspicious circumstances; Gracelin thinks she can cope, though Sean and longtime admirer, handsome Morgan McDonagh, are not so certain. The honeymoon is agreeable and Donelly House magnificent, but when Gracelin falls pregnant, Bram becomes abusive. The potato harvest has failed again, the people are starving, and he objects to Gracelin’s helping them. She gives birth to twins, but only a daughter survives, and, as Bram’s brutal behavior escalates she suspects that he may have fatally harmed his other wives. As famine deaths mount, Sean and Morgan plot rebellion against the British, and Gracelin defies Bram by feeding the needy. Enraged, he imprisons her, pregnant again, in the attic. This time, though, Gracelin is strong and able to fight back, even if it need be by murder.

Emotionally rather high-pitched, but an agreeable read.

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2001
ISBN: 0-451-20299-6
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: NAL/Berkley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2001