Fowler’s debut novel follows a young woman’s spiritual connection to the late Irish poet W.B. Yeats as she faces tragedy.
Sophie O’Connor is the daughter of an Irishman, Kerry, and an Irish-American woman, Maggie, who instill in her a love of literature from an early age. As a child, she talks to what seems to be an imaginary friend named Willie and comes to have a prodigious recall of Yeats’ poetry. As time goes on, Maggie, a believer in the spiritual realm, comes to think that Sophie is actually speaking to the spirit of Yeats, though Kerry is skeptical. Sophie has an idyllic childhood in Ireland and in the coal country of western Pennsylvania, exploring her spiritual side with her mother and forming a close bond with her funny, caring father. By her 16th year, though, things take a tragic turn: Maggie is killed in a car crash and Kerry is wracked by grief, leaving Sophie home alone. During this time, Sophie is brutally raped by her uncle. As she recovers, she becomes withdrawn and distant, fearful of emotional or physical contact; she also loses her connection with Willie. Only years later, as Sophie continues to heal, does she begin to hear his voice again, and then, shockingly, he appears to her in physical form to reawaken her love of life. Fowler’s work is effectively a love letter to Yeats and literature itself. The prose particularly shines when it focuses on literature’s ability to immortalize and say the unsayable, as when Willie looks at Sophie and sees the “wave and wood and wind and star” in the air around her. Sophie’s healing story arc, though unconventional, is satisfying, though not all the other characters are as fully developed as she is. The narration also excessively explains its version of spiritual mechanics to the reader, which somewhat lessens the impact of Willie’s incarnation.
An often engaging tale of learning to live again after tragedy that’s wrapped in an offbeat ode to literature and the spirit world.