Absorbing period tale of a long, hot summer in remote West Cork
Fiction: Rescued, Maria Murphy, Poolbeg, pbk, 336 pages, €16.99
Maria Murphy loves to write period pieces. She says the slower pace of life in bygone days has a relaxing effect on her as a reader. It can also enhance the drama. Waiting for a reply to a letter, for instance, can take weeks and lead to tensions and misunderstandings, which she uses to great effect in her writing.
Her first novel, For the Love of Martha, set in 1880 in England, Ireland and Italy, had shades of Charlotte Brontë and Daphne Du Maurier. The events in Rescued, her second book, take place over the long, hot summer of 1889 in the idyllic setting of West Cork. This one is more reminiscent of Beatrice Coogan's The Big Wind, with the poor eking out a living under a cruel landlord, forbidden inter-class love and the all-pervasive might of the 19th-century Catholic church.
Ellen Cassidy is a red-haired beauty who lives alone in a remote cottage by the sea on the Mizen peninsula. She leads an unconventional life as a healer, using her hands and the herbal cures taught to her by her grandmother. Blake Trevors is from the landed gentry. When he is washed up on to the beach below her cottage, after a boating accident, their two worlds collide.
Ellen rescues the handsome stranger and they are instantly drawn to each other, but she remembers her dying grandmother's prediction: "He and his kin will bring trouble to you and your kin! You must have nothing to do with him."
She uses her herbs to drug Blake and takes him to the village of Durrus where she abandons him so he can't find her again.
However, Blake does manage to find her and a passionate affair develops, which they keep secret, knowing they can never marry. Ellen is a Catholic peasant and Blake, a Protestant, is expected to make a good match with Felicity Hannon, a local heiress. Waiting in the wings for Ellen is Fionn, a kind-hearted man of her own class.
Ellen doesn't even share her secret with younger sister Annie whose husband Mick, a fisherman, is suspicious of Ellen as a healer and seems to hate her. She soon comes to the attention of Fr O'Riordan, the new parish priest and she finds herself up against her own community and the power of the church.
While Blake is compassionate and decent, his half-brother Arthur is malevolent. As the first-born son, he has recently inherited land on the peninsula after their father's death and is already assuming the role of tyrannical landlord, which is causing conflict between the brothers. Arthur puts his greedy eyes on the fishing community with outrageous demands for rent, evicting a widow and her four children. When Mick is injured in an accident at sea, he and Annie are about to be the next victims of the cruel Arthur and even Ellen herself is in his sights. It seems that their grandmother's premonition was right, as a web closes in on Ellen's hitherto easy way of life.
Blake has very little influence over Arthur and he and Ellen find themselves in an impossible and perilous situation. With tension mounting, the story races to a very satisfying conclusion. We don't find out until the very end whether they can ever bridge the class divide and just who is really doing the rescuing.
Once, again Murphy has proved herself a natural storyteller. Rescued is absorbing from the dramatic first page and very hard to put down. The sort of book that is perfect for the beach during an Irish heatwave or relaxing poolside in foreign climes.