Saturday 22 October 2016

When long-held secrets threaten to unravel family ties

Fiction: My Mother's Secret, Sheila O'Flanagan, Headline Review, hbk, 464 pages, €13.99

Tanya sweeney

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Charming story-telling: Sheila O'Flanagan releases her 20th book
Charming story-telling: Sheila O'Flanagan releases her 20th book
My Mother's Secret

A stalwart of romantic fiction, Sheila O'Flanagan goes platinum with her 20th title.

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Family, and specifically the Irish family, has long been a rich literary seam to mine. By turns complex, stoic and occasionally irascible, a family's members often weave together to create a tapestry of heightened and sometimes shadowy dynamics. Add in the idea that women are a deep well of secrets, and the plot thickens into a satisfying, murky soup.

To call Sheila O'Flanagan's latest book a mere beach read is barely doing this, her 20th title, much justice. Densely packed with vivid detail, My Mother's Secret manages to combine the key ingredients of a page-turner in exactly the right amounts: delicious descriptive passages, a tight plot that's spoon-fed in morsels and gallery of flawed and complex characters.

And they don't come as complex as Jenny, the matriarch of the Sheehan family. It may look as though Jenny, with her three grown-up children and a devoted husband of over 40 years, glides through life with élan and ease.

But like most people, she knows the truth. Her children, meanwhile, have tensions and issues of their own, many of which muddy their relations with the other.

Things in My Mother's Secret get off to an innocuous enough start: Steffie helps her older siblings, the bossy mum-of-three Roisin and middle child Davey, to organise a surprise wedding anniversary party for her parents. After a few squabbles, the family decamp to Rome. It's the place, after all, where Jenny married Pascal, the man she loves, 40 years ago.

But as things turn out, Jenny has been harbouring secrets from her family that she can hardly bear to hang on to any longer. Bearing witness to the fallout is the extended family (complete with a smattering of lovers), meaning that O'Flanagan's 20th book is among her most ambitious. It's not too hard, however, to keep on top of the labyrinthine gallery of diverse women, each with their own private tortures, tussles and motivation.

Davey's Danish girlfriend is in tow, as is Summer, an aspiring model and the new lover of cousin Carl. Things take a turn when Bernice, Carl's girlfriend of eight years (in true Friends style, they're 'on a break'), also arrives to the bash. But that's in fact the least of the drama on this momentous day of celebration.

Lightning strikes a nearby tree during a freak storm, causing serious injury to Roisin's young daughter, Poppy. With a dash to hospital through flooded roads now in the offing, what better time for Jenny to get some things off her chest?

With much of the action taking place over a couple of days (complete with a smattering of flashbacks), the plot sounds like it requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, but O'Flanagan manages to meld these dramatic moments into a believable, cohesive plot. The author even manages to have a little fun, throwing in some ticklish details: there's even an apostolic benediction and a nude model sheep farmer tucked in there somewhere.

Those already versed with O'Flanagan's previous work will no doubt already be familiar with the writer's gentle, comfortable style. As can often be the wont of popular fiction writers, she is not one who pans for cheap laughs, or showboats with zeitgeisty dialogue. Instead, there is something warm and reassuringly earthy in her prose.

And with 20 titles now on the shelves, O'Flanagan's storytelling skills are drumskin-taut. It wasn't until the Dubliner was in her mid-30s, however, that her first title was published in 1999.

Born to the parents of Iveagh Market grocery store traders, O'Flanagan started working in her first post-Leaving Cert job at the Central Bank of Ireland. She became the first female chief trader in the country, spending much of her day dealing with bonds and options: in her words, "all of the kind of things you read about in the papers and that sound very technical and difficult."

Yet finance's loss became the popular fiction market's gain, and the author's books have run the proverbial gamut, tackling infidelity, broken romances, infertility, family feuds, bereavement and broken friendships. Little wonder she has a number of chart-topping titles to her name, both here and abroad.

Quite apart from commercial success and the thrall of a devoted readership, O'Flanagan has also enjoyed critical acclaim: in 2011 she received the Irish Popular Fiction Book of the Year for All For You, while she was shortlisted alongside Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann and Joseph O'Connor for the Book Of The Decade Award at the 2010 Bord Gáis Energy Book Awards.

Yet despite being known as a stalwart of romantic fiction, the author is quoted as saying that she's "not a romantic person at all". Last year, she married her partner of 34 years, Colm McCashin, quipping that "maybe I was thinking that we should do it before my face falls completely."

With personal and professional contentment firmly in the bag, O'Flanagan is finally moving out of her comfort zone. A fantastical Young Adult title, The Crystal Run, is slated for release later in the year. Yet amid this period of professional experimentation, don't expect O'Flanagan to opt for that most vogueish of for-her publishing trends: erotica.

"First of all, I'd laugh myself silly trying to write erotica, and it needs to be well written for it to work," she says.

Still, O'Flanagan's own flavour of unpretentious and charming storytelling is more than enough to keep her fans satisfied. Christian Grey and his wolfish, kinky ilk, be damned.

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