In a tightly constructed, well-paced memoir that sits squarely in the tradition of Dickens and Frank McCourt, Finn recounts the brutal experience of his confinement in Ireland’s Letterfrack Industrial School, an institution for juvenile delinquents.
Mickey Finn is 12 years old and lives in putrid conditions with his ne’re-do-well father, beloved mother and four siblings. His father’s rampant drinking and gambling quickly turn the family into collateral damage, and they find little relief from a grandmother that never approved of her daughter’s marital choice. When Mickey is implicated in a petty theft, he is shipped off to an isolated ward where he and the other incarcerated boys tend livestock, work in the surrounding bogs and endure violent beatings and sexual assault at the hands of the Christian Brothers. Finn’s memoir is often harrowing but can also fatigue the reader with its sometimes one-note despair, simplistic metaphors and moralistic tone. “Again, the scars stayed with me for life as did the scars on my heart.” The author’s insight can become too mired in anger and revulsion. Whereas McCourt and Dickens might find small moments of humor or pathos, Finn never takes those surprising turns. Nor does he choose to delineate the system’s dysfunction, barely touching on the inner workings that doomed him to Letterfrack, much less the role his parents’ shortcomings played as well. Furthermore, the author soft-peddles the instances of sexual misconduct in a way that leaves the reader wondering if he has yet fully confronted his experience.
Finn’s story is one of survival—and a compelling one at that—yet he compartmentalizes the experience as one of inevitable darkness wherein its recounting sheds only brief moments of light.