Thursday 8 December 2016

Books: An uncomfortable read that delves into country's darksecrets

Crime: With Our Blessing, Jo Spain, Quercus, tpbk, 540 pages, €17.99

Sean Farrell

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

Murder mystery: This is mum-of-four Jo Spain's first novel
Murder mystery: This is mum-of-four Jo Spain's first novel
With Our Blessing
Joanne Spain

It's December 2011 and the body of an elderly woman is found crucified and mutilated in the Phoenix Park just a short distance from Garda Headquarters. When it emerges that the victim was a nun, Inspector Tom Reynolds realises that this is far different to the usual gangland killings with which his squad have to deal. The killer was making a point - but what?

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The dead woman was Mother Superior in a rural convent outside Limerick, a convent that once housed one of the notorious Magdalen Laundries.

Reynolds and his team descend on the convent and begin to sift through a painful chapter of Ireland's not too distant past. Could there be a connection with someone from the past returning to wreak revenge? Or is the answer to be found in the personality of the nun herself, clearly disliked, if not hated, by her fellow religious and many of the villagers?

The convent is home to about 20 nuns, some of whom at least appear potential suspects. When inspected, its archives reveal a catalogue of ill treatment of the unfortunate girls and young women consigned there over decades, something confirmed by several of the nuns. Reynolds rapidly becomes convinced that the clue to the murder lies within these past events, which have included illegal adoptions and mysterious pregnancies by women locked up for several years.

Is the killer a wronged mother, deprived of her child at birth - or one of the adopted children? And what role does, and did, the local parish priest, the only ally of the murdered nun, play in all of this?

This latest addition to Irish detective fiction is the debut novel of Jo Spain, a Dublin mother of four and an economic advisor to one of the political parties here. The novel was shortlisted in this year's 'Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller' competition.

For the author, the story has a very personal dimension. As she notes, her father was adopted out of an Irish mother-and-baby home and the book, which "visits the sad history of such institutions", is written in his memory. The novel's backdrop was based on some of the author's in-depth research to trace her family's roots.

The Magdalen Laundries and the treatment of single mothers 30 years ago are a stain on Ireland's recent history, something many survivors - and society - are still coming to terms with.

Jo Spain's novel attempts to bring to life in fictional terms what happened to some of the victims while making clear that there are many files to be read and many stories still to be told. As might be expected, there were good nuns who deplored what was happening and who tried to help but the system was there and Irish society of the time was content to allow it. How times have changed, and the author cleverly contrasts the treatment meted out 30 or more years ago with the attitudinal change today when a detective's daughter reveals she is pregnant.

With our Blessing is an easy, though not a comfortable, read.

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