I sort of have a thing for Ireland. It’s the country I’d most like to visit; I’d like to wander through its mountains, visit its castles and cathedrals, see its cities. It’s a long-held obsession, cultivated no doubt by reading; Ireland seems to pop up a lot in books and poems, and of course there’s James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Yeats, Seamus Heaney. I have an inkling that there is a bit of Irish in our family line, although McCurdy could be Scottish; I’ve clung to wanting a piece of Ireland in my blood for so long that I don’t really want to dig around in family history for fear that there isn’t any. I am all-too-aware that I’m romanticizing a place that is, after all, just a place. But from here, it seems like a magical place, steeped in history all the way back to the Celts.
Plus there’s the accent.
I also have a thing for books set in Ireland or written by Irish writers. Even though most contemporary novels make it seem like a country full of poverty and alcoholics. Siobhan Dowd’s first novel, A Swift, Pure Cry, does that, too. It has the motifs of poverty and alcoholism, plus the death of the protagonist's mother, teen pregnancy, and a mystery involving a dead baby. Lots of dark, sad stuff, but I still read it in just one day. The lyrical use of language, a plot that pulls you along with "what is going to happen next?" and a little corner of Ireland that becomes as important as any character made this novel irresistible to me. It's the story of Shell, whose mother has recently died and whose father has left his job and devoted his life to collecting for the poor. This leaves Shell to fulfill the role of mother to her two younger siblings. She's fifteen though, so she's also got boyfriend struggles and troubles with her best friend. Her mother's spirit has a habit of helping her out every once in awhile, and there's a Catholic priest who helps her, too. One of my favorite spots is when this priest, Father Rose, who's new to the parish, stands next to the alter and gives his first sermon. Shell, who's been feeling fairly non-spiritual after her mother's death, starts believing again. Christ, whom she feels has abandoned her, "stands up from the bar and comes back to me." That gentle sense of faith being reanimated weaves throughout the novel, making you feel like Shell will be saved, even when grace seems impossible.
I’m being sort of vague on the plot details on purpose, because it's a novel that's best read when you don't know much about it. The tension builds and builds as the story progresses; you want Shell to find a happy, good place for herself but can't see how she'll manage it. There are some heartbreaking bits when I outright cried, and some other pieces that made me laugh. The ending is good---satisfying without being unplausible.
I’ve not yet read Dowd’s second novel, The London Eye Mystery, but I just finished her third, Bog Child. Again in this novel, the Irish landscape becomes a character of its own, but in a different sense. It’s set in the early 1980s, during The Troubles. Fergus, while out with his uncle, discovers a body in a peat bog. At first the girl is thought to be a recent murder victim, but they quickly discover she is a bog child, buried there and preserved for two thousand years. Fergus is in the middle of studying for his final high school exams; he wants to leave the small town where he’s grown up, go to University, and become a doctor. His older brother Joe is in jail for some undisclosed crime committed in the cause of liberating Ireland; Joe’s friend is trying to get Fergus involved in the cause; he’s wanting to hang out around the archeological site they’ve set up around the bog child. Plus he’s learning to drive. He’s got a lot going on, Fergus.
In fact, the book has a lot going on, too. It’s part history (you get the story of the bog child, told in pieces), part romance, part family drama (Joe, in prison, goes on a hunger strike with several of his comrades), part teen troubles, part humor. Plus, Fergus is a runner. He heads out on his ten-mile-long runs across the Irish countryside, thinking as he goes, and I could relate: why did I do this? he asks himself as he starts running. "His legs were heavy. Every breath felt like his last. When people asked him what was the worst bit of a run, the answer was always the same: the first mile." The best part is "the magic middle of things, where moving felt the same as staying still." Running is both the thing that helps him define himself and that gets him in trouble; it’s not so much an exercise as a place for figuring things out. A place where he can think about what courage really is, and a place that is a springboard for acting on his courage.
Like A Swift, Pure Cry, I read Bog Child in a day. I finished it and thought I wish she could have written more novels. Siobhan Dowd died in 2007, leaving two unpublished novels. There’s one still left to come out, Solace of the Road. And then...nothing. Still, it's not her untimely death that makes her an author worth reading, especially by older teens. The writing is just downright good, lyrical without being overly difficult, thought-provoking without preaching. Both of her books I’ve read have made me remember how lovely and good every individual life is.