By Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books.
320 pp. $16.99
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
Siobhan Dowd's debut novel,
A Swift Pure Cry
, is surprising in a few ways. For one, this elegant, literary novel hooked me with its fine writing, but also held me with a suspenseful story that I never saw coming.
It opens in church, where 15-year-old Shell Talent is thinking of her mother. Shell watched her waste away from cancer and then die, leaving Shell with her two younger siblings, Jimmy and little Trix, and a father who can't cope. He's got a bad case of religion - he's just finished doing his slightly crazed Bible reading - and every day he shuts the children out of the house with the odd and unnecessary task of picking up all the stones in their back field and stacking them in a pile.
After their mother died he quit his job working for a local farm, went on government assistance, and began spending most days mortifying Shell by standing in the village collecting money for the poor, some of which he keeps for himself and spends on long, obliterating evenings at the pub.
The only girl in school who has it worse than Shell is her friend Bridie Quinn, who's sharp-tongued and tough - brazen, the teachers at my own Catholic school would have called her. Her father abandoned the family years ago, leaving them all in a "moldering, three-room bungalow" with an outhouse instead of an indoor bathroom, and poor Bridie has to share a bed with her mother.
Yup, you guessed it. We're in Ireland.
Rural Ireland in 1984, to be exact, which, in Dowd's presentation of it, is old-fashioned in a way that will surprise most American kids. The tiny village of Coolbar, County Cork, is religious, mostly agrarian, and quiet, surrounded by gorgeous countryside. Shell doesn't mind living there at all; she likes to see the stars at night and lambs in the fields, and to sit in the woods at the top of the village to gather her thoughts.
It's also something of a surprise to find this story, which could have taken place 100 years ago or yesterday, in the YA pile, since the best-known novels in the genre are characterized by a trendiness that's more fashion magazine than fiction. If it weren't for the one mention of American soap operas and the time Shell hears the song "Smooth Operator" on the radio in the library van, it would be virtually impossible to place the story in any one decade of the 20th century.
Instead of timeliness we get loveliness (more than a fair trade), not just in the descriptions of natural beauty but in the writing itself. The "swift pure cry" of the title is taken from Joyce's Ulysses, and the line is quoted before the novel starts: "It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained. . . ." (Another nod to Joyce comes in the final paragraph, when Shell gets a view from a Ferris wheel of the whole world that includes "The living and the dead," a reference to what must be one of the most incredible final paragraphs of any story in the English language, "The Dead.") Dowd's own language is clean and poetic, descriptive, and gently witty; she lets her characters make the more mordant observations.
And there's not just loveliness here, but love. In an innocent way, Shell falls in love with Father Rose, the 25-year-old upstart priest who has a sad smile and "a full head of hair that sprang upwards like bracken."
In a different way she falls for Declan Ronan - another brazen kid from her class, but one who excels in school and wants a life that's bigger than the one he can have in Coolbar. He escapes, but not without leaving a path of destruction behind him.
That's when the book takes a surprising turn, and the hardships of the Talent family unfold into a gripping and not at all predictable story. And in the way of small-town life, everyone is implicated: Bridie, Declan, Shell's increasingly absentee father, the village gossips - not to mention the Church, the legal system, and their shared inability (or refusal) to help Shell when she needs it most.
Still, if the energy Father Rose brings to his vocation revitalizes Shell's religious faith, his sweet friendship with the girl buoys the book, saving it from the unhappiness underneath, the entrenched, grinding kind of unhappiness present in so many stories of Ireland. There aren't neat or tidy endings for anyone here, but there is an upswing at the end, as the "big wheel" scoops up Shell, Jimmy, and Trix, giving them a sense of perspective and a feeling of hope for the future. And isn't that the most any of us can ask for?