Saturday 18 August 2018

Marconi's men stir passions on superstitious island


The Watch House

Bernie McGill

Tinder Press, pbk, 368 pages, €17.49

Heart-rending novel: Northern Irish author McGill
Heart-rending novel: Northern Irish author McGill
The Watch House by Bernie McGill

Ann Dunne

Murder, infidelity and ­secrets are the ­ingredients in Bernie McGill's ­haunting second novel, set in a small Irish island ­community. McGill's first novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, published in 2011, was well received by readers and critics alike, including a glowing tribute from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. McGill is also the author of Sleepwalkers, a collection of short stories which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She lives in Portstewart with her family - not far from where her story takes place.

The Watch House begins on Rathlin Island in 1898 when Marconi was commissioned by Lloyds of London to conduct experiments in wireless telegraphy with passing ships - many of which were insured by Lloyds underwriters. While much of the novel is based in fact, the characters are fictional and McGill was inspired by the arrival of this new technology as she envisaged its effect on the superstitious islanders.

Nuala Byrne was brought up by her grandparents after her family moved to Newfoundland in the wake of the Famine. When her grandparents die, she finds herself alone and penniless with no choice but to marry the island's tailor, Ned, 30 years her senior, to keep a roof over her head. Her new husband is shy and reserved, but Nuala had never reckoned on Ned's sister, Ginny, a bitter old crone who rules the roost and treats Nuala like a skivvy.

When Marconi's men arrive, Ginny sends Nuala to cook for them. She becomes friendly with an Italian engineer, Gabriele, who teaches her how to use the codes and offers her work for the same pay as local man, Tam Casey. As Nuala's relationship with Gabriele develops into a full-blown passionate affair, she comes to regret her loveless marriage to Ned. Meanwhile, Tam's simmering resentment leads to a series of tragic events.

In a small community, the bush telegraph works even better than Marconi's new technology and Ginny becomes suspicious of Nuala and the Italian engineer. Ginny is convinced that Nuala's unborn child is not Ned's so when the child is born, she takes matters into her own hands. Her actions will have repercussions for decades with an unexpected and heartbreaking twist at the very end.

The Watch House draws a picture of island life which had been unchanged for centuries until the arrival of wireless. Reminiscent of Beatrice Coogan's The Big Wind and with a touch of the film Ryan's Daughter, McGill skilfully draws the reader into the lives of the protagonists, clinging to their old ways as a new century begins. Hard to put down, this atmospheric book will stay with you long after the final heart-rending denouement, setting McGill firmly into the panoply of modern Irish writers.

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