Sunday 22 April 2018

Ambitious and absorbing tales of female escape

Fiction: A History of Running Away, Paula McGrath, John Murray Press, hdbk, 256 pages, €17.99

Vivid: Author Paula McGrath spans generations and oceans
Vivid: Author Paula McGrath spans generations and oceans
A History of Running Away by Paula McGrath

Tanya Sweeney

There is plenty of terror, drama and hope in the prospect of running away.

People isolate themselves from their support networks, or the people that cause the most destruction, and are forced to live by their wits in unfamiliar territory.

Paula McGrath is nothing if not ambitious, and this tale spans generations, epochs and emotions. Her gripping 2015 debut Generation - also about escape - was every bit as bold, similarly hopping between three generations of characters. McGrath has never had a problem sketching out the experiences of a vast array of characters, and in A History Of Running Away, the lives of her three main protagonists are inhabited and fleshed out with impressive élan.

There's the gynaecologist, long mired in the overstretched medical sector of contemporary Dublin. Not only is she an insider on the business end of the health service, and frustrated by its shortcomings, she is also at its mercy, with a mother living in a nursing home. And a job opportunity arises in a London maternity hospital, where her new boyfriend lives.

Over in Maryland, meanwhile, a young woman hooks up with a biker gang on their way through town; a literal running away. In the wake of her mother's death, she happens upon grandparents that she has never been close to, but nevertheless have great plans for her education and the rest of her life.

And in 1982, an ambitious and innocent 17-year-old girl from Ireland is leaving behind her drug-addled mother and has moved into a London squat with big dreams of success. Despite her best-laid plans, Jasmine falls in with the wrong people and things start to unravel. Upon arrival back in Dublin, she finds a sage mentor in George, and realises that she wants to be a boxer in a world that won't readily let her in.

Much of the fun, of course, is trying to see where these three characters will overlap (and while the wait is worthwhile, it does take most of the book to connect the dots), but there is a commonality between her characters. It's not a new device by any means, but McGrath makes supremely good use of it here. Each of her characters are attempting to find their way in worlds that are not especially hospitable to women. Not everyone gets their happy ever after, even if they are striving to find a way to live their lives on their own terms.

McGrath proved that she had a keen ear for both poignancy and humanity in Generation, and her second novel carries on this fine tradition. There's a gentle cadence and almost plain, unadorned tone to the writing. This is no doubt deliberate - all the better to let the more unsettling plot lines take centre stage - yet this consistency can sometimes be problematic in establishing the separate voices of the three characters.

Regardless, there's plenty happening in these three tales; so much so, in fact, that they could have easily been novels in their own right.

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