An Irish family struggles to maintain tenuous emotional bonds as it scatters to the winds in this affecting domestic melodrama.
When Norah Kelly dies suddenly of a burst appendix, her widower, Brendan, an impoverished carter in the village of Glendarrig in the early 1920s, leaves his five young children with Norah’s elderly Aunt Bridget while he hunts for a new wife to care for them. Duly returning with a bride, he shocks the family by announcing that he intends to send his children to an orphanage. Appalled, Aunt Bridget manages to make better arrangements, placing toddlers Sheelagh and Michael and six-year-old Colm with wealthy English families and keeping nine-year-old Mary for herself. Eldest son Pierce returns to live in his father’s house, where Brendan’s alcoholism and violent temper and his stepmother’s shrewishness make for a cold, silent home. The narrative brings the five siblings, growing up in five different households, to early adulthood as their separate circumstances gradually–but not entirely–eclipse their common origins. Mary’s grief at the family’s breakup hardens into bitterness at Brendan for causing it; Pierce, struggling to build a life and a business, is wistful at the advantages his brothers enjoy; the English siblings–especially Colm, who blossoms into an insufferable snob, and a cad to boot–feel estranged from a past that now lies across a wide class and cultural divide. There’s a dark (and somewhat contrived) secret at the heart of the plot, but mostly it’s about ordinary life: letters and arguments, jobs and weddings, births and deaths and awkward, poignant reunions. O’Farrell manages to shape it all into an absorbing story with sharply observed characters and a rich portrait of rural Ireland in the ’20s and ’30s.
An engrossing, convincing family saga.