Sunday 25 February 2018

Dysfunctional families keep mum

Romance: The Summer Visitors, Fiona O'Brien, Hachette Ireland, €13.49

The Summer Visitors by Fiona O'Brien
The Summer Visitors by Fiona O'Brien

Margaret Carragher

Fiona O'Brien's seventh novel opens in the village of Ballyanna on Ireland's south-west coast. It was here that Annie Sullivan grew up; and it's to here she returns from London, following a traumatic break-up, to contemplate her future. But there's little head space to be had in the hotel owned by Annie's family, where her mother Breda continues to run the show while her cantankerous father Conor props up the bar. Then there's Dee, Annie's sister, who, following her husband's involvement in a financial scam, is going off the rails on pills and booze as Breda pussyfoots around her, enabling her daughter's behaviour by failing to address it, and undertaking more and more responsibility for Dee's daughter, Gracie.

Meanwhile, as Annie grapples with her dysfunctional tribe, another fractured and traumatised family arrives in the village. Research has brought documentary filmmaker Daniel O'Connell to Ballyanna's historic cable station where, 150 years earlier, the first transatlantic submarine cable came ashore. The irony of his documentary's subject matter - communications - is not lost on Daniel, whose 11-year-old son Sean, an identical twin, hasn't uttered a word since his mother's death in a traffic accident more than a year previously. Assured by his son's trauma counsellor that Sean will talk when he's ready, and that in the meantime, they should try to have some fun in Ireland, Daniel looks around what is to be their home for the summer and spots Annie Sullivan lost in thought by the seashore. Given the social dynamics of Ballyanna the pair soon meet up; and as they tentatively connect, Annie's niece Gracie proceeds to take Sean under her wing, an irksome development for his identical twin Pat who, since the accident, has assumed the role of his brother's keeper. Then a potentially catastrophic incident forces characters major and minor to confront issues they'd sooner avoid.

Set against the backdrop of Kerry's spectacular coastline, this beautifully crafted novel is all about communication and its immeasurable impact, for good or ill, on humankind.

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