MOTHER TO A STRANGER by Leland Bardwell


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A pianist is shocked to be found by the son she gave away three decades ago.

Away in a small town in northwest Ireland resides one of those couples essentially invisible in fiction: middle-aged, childless, and fully content to be so. Nan is a talented concert pianist flying about the world to deliver performances, archaeologist Jim delivers the occasional lecture or paper but mostly potters around with their small batch of livestock. Their relationship is cozy and mostly free of controversy. But when a letter arrives one summer day from the son Nan gave up for adoption 30 years ago (before she met Jim, whom she never told), it’s as though a lightning bolt had struck right into their kitchen. Jim flies into a flagrantly childish and ill-conceived drunken fury over this startling news. On her way back from a recital in Poland, Nan stops off in England to visit 30-year-old Charlie, whose adoptive parents have just died in a car crash. Charlie later comes to stay with Nan and Jim for a few weeks, an event that sends Jim off on a deeper, drunker jag. Charlie’s odd, silent presence unnerves both of them at first, but Jim starts to come around. Irish writer Bardwell, in his US debut, tells the story a highly elliptical fashion, skipping all about the chronology, then from time to time (and from the side) tossing in Nan and Jim’s observations, memories, and increasing discomfort with each other. Though they’ve lived there for years, city-born Nan and Jim are still considered “blow-ins” in their small town, which has as much privacy as a communal bathroom and is touchingly but unsentimentally rendered with nary a touch of blarney. Though her characters never indulge in those long, strangely articulate outbursts meant to telegraph an author’s meaning, her marriage tale displays an understated fervor that deserves attention.

Tough-minded and moving.

Pub Date: June 23rd, 2003
ISBN: 0-85640-716-X
Page count: 200pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2003