Thursday 19 October 2017

Review: Homecoming by Cathy Kelly

(Harper Collins, €14.99)
A golden age for Cathy. . .

One might have expected Cathy Kelly to be in Ireland this week for the launch of her latest bestseller. Instead, on Thursday, she was in Perth in Western Australia where a huge crowd of fans paid $35 each to have morning tea with her and get a signed copy of her last novel. On Tuesday she was in Adelaide, last week it was Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart and Melbourne, and the week before it was New Zealand.

There's a tendency here to take her for granted, to say it's "just another Cathy Kelly". But the fact is she is now a writer with a global following and her latest novel, Homecoming, shows perfectly why that should be.

Eleanor Levine, a retired psychoanalyst in her 80s, has not been back in Ireland since she was a girl. But after the sudden death of her beloved husband she travels from New York to Dublin and seems utterly alone in her hotel just two weeks before Christmas. The only thing connecting her to the past is a book of her mother's recipes, which has been her talisman through life.

"Food makes everything better," she muses as she leafs through its pages, yet it seems nothing can assuage her grief.

But Eleanor is not one for self-pity and she moves to an apartment in a genteel Victorian square in the city, where she quickly turns her attention to the people around her.

And this is where Kelly starts to work her magic. Her imagined setting, Golden Square, has some old red-bricks, an apartment block, a parade of shops and charming tearooms with the unlikely name of Titania's Palace.

The tearooms are run by Rae Kerrigan, a middle-aged woman who dispenses tea, sympathy and wonderful cupcakes. She is not quite a fairy queen like Titania in A Mid-summer's Night Dream, but her red-curtained café provides the ideal meeting place for the characters and their intertwining stories.

There's Megan Bouchier, a film actress who is escaping the paparazzi after an affair with a married co-star. She has been vilified in the press and has come to Golden Square to take refuge with her aunt.

Another regular in Titania's is Connie O'Callaghan, single and approaching 40 with an increasing sense of panic. After being bitten once, she prefers to seek romance in novels in the safety of her bedroom.

In Kelly's assured hands, the people living on Golden Square become real. You care what happens to them on their personal journeys.

It comes as a shock when Rae is ambushed by a dark secret from her past and you wonder how she will tell her husband. Your toes curl for Connie when she cooks for a new man and turns chicken casserole into wine stew. As for selfish, spoilt Megan: it becomes clear what makes her tick and a real woman starts to emerge at the end of the novel.

All the while, Eleanor is dispensing advice in the background as she struggles to make sense of her grief -- and her own past.

Snippets from her recipe book open a window on her mother Brigid's life and times in the west of Ireland.

Each chapter opens with a vignette from the 1920s butter-churning and bread-making traditions -- but it's neither mawkish nor sentimental.

There is nothing preachy in Homecoming. Like Eleanor's little recipe book, it is about life, love and cooking, and the warmth and compassion of its author comes through on every page.

This is a compelling read from a wise writer who has a deep understanding of humans and their foibles.

Kelly already has 11 bestsellers under her belt, this will certainly be another.

Irish Independent

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