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Grace's Day review: A curiously romantic tale of family that twists to darkness

Fiction: Grace's Day, William Wall, Apollo, hardback, 224 pages, €23.80


Island life: Wlliam Wall. Photo: Liz Kirwan

Island life: Wlliam Wall. Photo: Liz Kirwan

Grace's Day

Grace's Day


Island life: Wlliam Wall. Photo: Liz Kirwan

If there was a prize for the best opening line of a novel, this one would deservedly win: "A long time ago I had two sisters and we lived on an island." Simple and unaffected as a fairy tale, the reader is plunged straight into the strange lives of Jeannie, Emily and Grace, who live with their mother on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland.

Their father, Tom Newman, is a travel writer for the Manchester Guardian, who writes pieces about their life on the island, "part fiction, part memoir" and "all the rage when we were children".

He lives it up in London while Grace, her sisters and their mother hold "the responsibility of acting out the life he felt bound to follow". That existence is one of hippyish self-sufficiency, growing kale and potatoes, swimming in the sea; but of course the reality is less Arcadian than it seems to outsiders. They feel like a family when he's at home, but alone revert to "an animal existence". Tragedy strikes when Em, the youngest daughter, falls from the ruined watchtower on the island and drowns. "Then my sister Emily died," as the novel introduces this dark turn of events. Again, that ominous simplicity. Plain words can, however, hide deeper secrets, and here that's very much the case. It was Grace's day to mind her sister, so she carries that guilt with her into adulthood, as the family is separated and she's left to look after her mentally undone mother in a grotty flat in London. She becomes a psychiatrist, helping people deal with traumas in their own life, while never overcoming her own.

Jeannie's field is geology. She is, literally, more grounded and steady, though not without her own baggage. Her lover is Richard Wood, an Anglo-Irish poet who also slept regularly with her free-spirited mother back in the day. The narrative is shared equally between the two female voices. Inevitably, they see their childhoods in conflicting ways.

Grace's Day is based on a previously published collection of short stories. That book was called The Islands, and this one follows the same structure. It's divided into three sections, each centred on a different island. The first is their childhood home of Castle Island off the coast of Co Cork. The second is the Isle of Wight, where the girls' father now lives with his second wife, and to which Grace comes to visit. The third is Procida in the Bay of Naples, where Tom, now 70, is married to wife number three and a documentary is being made about his life.

Here the decades of family resentments and tensions come to a head and the truth of what really happened years ago is finally revealed.

Show, don't tell. That's the classic advice to every budding writer. It's nonsense, of course. Great novels are not written according to rules; books work best when they take their own path.

This novel is all about the telling. There's barely any dialogue to speak of. Action is limited. Characters express themselves instead in extended reveries, punctuated by lush descriptive passages.

The first section is probably the most evocative. The girls lead a hard life on their supposedly idyllic island, disturbed by the recurrent deaths of hens, seagulls and rabbits, but Wall, who has four collections of poetry to his name, can't help but make it seem curiously romantic all the same.

His new novel will delight some readers, but irritate others, who may be inclined to agree with Grace at the end of the second section, when she observes: "We are poisoned by images, an endless sinister fallout of metaphors, full of purpose but devoid of meaning."

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