Published by Pan Books
Book Review Rating - ♥♥♥♥
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 1998
Angela Devine has raised her nineteen year old brother, James, since he was three months old. Her mother, a substance abuser, died leaving behind five children, all the progeny of different fathers. Angela persuaded the social workers to allow her to raise James instead of being taken into care as has happened with her other three siblings.
It’s now Dublin, 1996, and Angela keeps her head above financial waters by working three jobs; as a cleaner, kissogram and wedding singer. Angela loves her brother as if he was her own son, trying to protect him from everything that is bad in the world. However, that ‘motherly’ protection becomes much more difficult when James is accused of rape.
“…you’ll forgive if sometimes I use what you might think are inappropriate words. Or at the least words above my station! I’m not all that educated and my grammar or tenses may not always be the best…But I adore words…I have to squish a lot of them when they pop into my mouth in case people think I’m showing off.”
Angela not only has to ‘squish’ words but also her thoughts, emotions and relationships. She also squishes her own desires, like finding her father, so that all her energy is focused on giving James all the love and attention that she never received from her own mother. Like a ‘mother’ she refuses to acknowledge that James is now a nineteen year man and still perceives him as a young boy.
Angela is an ordinary woman but has an extraordinary strength of character and resilience. That extraordinary strength is pushed to its outer limits when James is arrested on the charge of rape. Angela can’t and will not believe it and she begins to ask questions that she knows she shouldn’t be contemplating; was it the girl’s fault by leading James on or was she lying to cover up her own indiscretion;
“Do you know what I think? I think she got in a row at home about where she was that afternoon – maybe they started getting on her case about mitching from her bookkeeping course. Or the mother found grass stains on her – or even the torn knickers. Yes, that would have been it. She had no way to explain the state of those knickers without implicating herself. So to defend herself she cried rape.”
Deidre Purcell has written an astonishing novel about the ordinary. An ordinary woman leading a prosaic life, invisible to others, walking a road well travelled but possessing an inner strength that will come to the fore in a three month period that will change her life. Angela Devine is a wonderful character written in an unapologetically honest manner. This honesty is why this reader allowed their emotions to be dragged through the proverbial ringer, bleeding profusely but still willing to follow Angela through to the end.
The honesty that pervades the book not only comes in the writing of Angela’s character but also the character of Dublin in the 1990s. No clichéd holiday brochure like mention of the warm welcome, the pubs full of music and the engaging craic.
“Shut up, shut up, you don’t know. It’s like effin’ Beirut out there. You can’t walk down a street any more with any of your friends. You can’t have a drink in a pub, and it’s not only at night, it can be the middle of the day, you don’t have to do anything to them, you only have to be minding your own business. It’s all right for women, they don’t get hassle-“
Ms Purcell has written a novel that one can honestly write about as being genuinely difficult to put down. The author has managed to avoid all those clichés that appear in so many modern Irish novels: the religiously zealous mother, the alcoholic father, the abusive uncle and the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland is mentioned only in passing. It is a genuinely powerful book that doesn’t resort to literary tricks or contorted techniques to capture the reader’s attention.
Angela has a love of language that shines through the novel like sun through stained glass. She also has a sharp sense of humour that punctuates a novel that could have easily allowed itself to drown in Angela and James’s despair. However, the novel’s humour, warmth and audacious writing do more to help one to understand the nature of the startling, unquestioning love one can feel for another person even when that person has been accused of a heinous crime.
First Line – “Every second of this summer hammered a spike into my memory.”
Memorable Line – “It’s funny how people can just slip out of your life. You’d think you’d have some clue. In a film you’d have all the music, telling you it was significant. It’s always a humbling experience to know that something terrifically important to you is of no importance whatsoever to the world at large.”
Number of Pages – 483
Profanity – None
Sex Scenes – Yes but not explicit
Genre – Fiction
So, Deirdre Purcell’s novel brings me to the end of the shortlist for 1998. Below are the five other books that made up the 1998 shortlist:
Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirstin Bakis
The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville
The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve
The winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction for 1998 was Larry’s Party by Carol Shields. My own choice for the winner for 1998 would have been Anita Shreve’s, The Weight of Water with Anne Patchett coming a very close second.
So, now onto the 1999 shortlist and the six novels chosen were;
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
The Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn
Visible Worlds by Marilyn Bowering
The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton
The Poisoned Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Paradise by Toni Morrison.