Trek across globe to visit secret family in Kerry
Fiction: I'll be Home for Christmas, Roisin Meaney, Hachette, pbk, 480 pages, €9.99
Young Tilly Walker, a small-town Australian girl, discovers she's pregnant at the age of 17. Her response is to flee to Ireland, a country she's never visited. But she's heard that she's got family there, a sister living on the fictional island of Roone off the coast of Kerry.
She has a lot to organise, like her passport and her convincing string of lies to her adoptive parents about going to Bali with a schoolfriend. Nobody can know her true destination, and nobody can know about her pregnancy. And so ensues a litany of disasters, from having her handbag pinched in London to eventually landing in Kerry on Christmas Eve, but unable to catch the Roone ferry because of bad weather.
Meanwhile, on the island of Roone, Laura is having her own troubles. Recovering from cancer and taking care of five young children is taking its toll. She's suffering from constant fatigue and her loving but not very capable husband isn't helping much. Her mother-in-law, staying with the family for Christmas, is helping even less.
When a freak storm hits the island, leaving everyone effectively stranded and without electricity, Laura is at the end of her tether. An old apple tree has fallen on the animal shed in Laura's backyard. Her little goats and piglets are silent in the shed, and presumably all dead. In the midst of this chaos, a stranger called Tilly arrives on her doorstep on Christmas morning who claims that she's Laura's younger sister. But Laura doesn't have a sister, she's an only child. Isn't she?
With no power, no mobile phone coverage and no internet, Tilly is unable to keep her parents back in Australia updated on her news from her alleged holiday in Bali, and she grows increasingly uneasy about worrying her folks. She only discovered she was adopted earlier in the year, and meeting her birth mother was a sad, fraught encounter, not one that either party ever wishes to repeat. She just has the bare bones of her mother's story. But it seems arriving on Roone unannounced and pregnant isn't such a good idea after all.
Inadequate and selfish mothers seem to loom large in Meaney's fiction. Earlier this year, I reviewed The Reunion, a story which also featured an accidental teenage pregnancy. The mother's actions in that novel had devastating consequences for her family. Similarly, in I'll be Home for Christmas, having a weak and lily-livered mother leads to years of unhappiness for Laura, and indeed for Tilly. Suffering abandonment and rejection by one's mother is a bitter pill to swallow, and Meaney treats each of her effectively motherless protagonists with considerable sensitivity. There is an equally weak and lily-livered father lurking in the shadows, lending yet another dimension to the whole, sorry mess. While painting Laura and Tilly with a sympathetic brush, Meaney is scathing in her depiction of the feckless parents, bringing to mind that old chestnut: "And you need a licence for a dog!"
The many fans of Meaney would be delighted to find this book in their Christmas stocking, although I suspect they might be unable to wait that long. Most of her previous novels have hit the bestseller list in jig time, those located on Roone Island being particular favourites. I reckon that this novel is destined for a similar fate.