Monday 11 December 2017

No woman is an island in this devastating fairy tale

Fiction: The Stolen Child, Lisa Carey, W&N, hardback, 336 pages, €20.99

Magic realism: Carey's evocation of small island life is the novel’s greatest strength
Magic realism: Carey's evocation of small island life is the novel’s greatest strength
The Stolen Child

Meadhbh Mcgrath

The Stolen Child begins, ­ominously enough, on "the day of the evacuation". It is 1960, and the community ­living on the remote, fictional island of St Brigid's are preparing to relocate to a council estate on the mainland. The prologue reveals that those living on this desolate island off the west coast of Ireland are a small group of ­women, children and one ­elderly man - the rest of the men are ­conspicuously absent.

The first chapter jumps back to the previous year, when the island's men are still alive. But this is, in every respect, a story about women, a point illustrated by the novel's fascination with bees.

"There are three types of bee," one character explains. "The queen, the female workers, and the male drones. The drones are only for fertilising the queen. They don't do anything else. They can't even sting. It's the women who rule the bee world."

And so it is the women who rule the world on this small, enchanted island. At its heart are the sisters Rose and Emer. As a child, Emer was "stolen" by fairies and suffered an attack by bees that left her scarred and bitter, longing to escape to the mainland. Her older sister, the kind and beautiful Rose, thrives on the island, married to Emer's childhood crush and mother to a boisterous brood.

Emer is "touched" by the island's fairies, cursed with hands that can leave those near her gripped by despair. Disturbed by her strange, unknowable powers, Emer is fiercely protective of her only son, Niall, terrified that she won't be able to rescue him from a looming threat.

Their island home is steeped in rituals and superstition, a place without any modern conveniences, where mysterious changelings and fairies plague the inhabitants' daily lives, and a secret holy well is believed to grant miracles.

It is this well that brings Brigid, an American woman, to the island, under the guise of claiming her late uncle's cottage. Brigid too has a gift, even stronger than Emer's, with hands that can cure a variety of ills. But while she delivers relief to those she touches, her own body reacts in violent ways, leaving her weak, sick and ultimately infertile.

Longing for a baby, she sets out to find the healing waters of St Brigid's well, disrupting the close-knit community on the island in the process.

They are a tough, resourceful lot, dependent on the behaviour of the sea - and their fellow islanders - for survival. But over the course of the novel, Brigid manages to integrate into the community, and into the lives of the two sisters, in a way that profoundly changes each of them.

The sense of dread grows steadily throughout The Stolen Child, building a landscape of fear and betrayal that culminates in a shockingly violent climax. The jarring sudden twist in the novel's final pages may prove divisive - it is executed so briskly it feels rushed, giving readers little time to process what has happened.

There are no clear heroes or "good" people in Carey's story, and the novel doesn't allow your sympathies to rest with any one person too long. In Emer, Carey has created a truly intriguing character - her raw pain and anguish are powerfully felt, as the novel explores the desperate sacrifices people will make in last-gasp attempts to protect the ones they love.

Carey employs a generous dose of magic realism to leave you guessing, crafting a dark, devastating fairy tale that will keep you up into the wee hours. The Stolen Child is beautifully written, well-paced, and at times heartbreakingly bleak as it delves into the backstories of all three women - Emer and Rose's childhood on the island and Brigid's own past in America, as well as her feelings of dislocation as an American living in Ireland.

Like Brigid, Carey herself is Irish-American, and her evocation of this small-island life is the novel's greatest strength. She demonstrates a natural grasp of Irish slang, and you get an intoxicating sense of the island as you read.

St Brigid's itself becomes a character - seductive but changeable, a refuge for its inhabitants but also a prison - as Carey slowly reveals how the island came to be uninhabitable, offering an enchanting, razor-edged exploration of desire, belonging, motherhood and the bonds between family.

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