Wednesday 22 May 2019

Spare, moving prose brings small-town tale to life

Fiction: Roisin Meaney, The Street Where You Live, Hachette Books Ireland, paperback, 332 pages, €7.99

Roisin Meaney
Roisin Meaney
The Street Where You Live
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Roisin Meaney's bestselling books tell stories in which small towns are gigantic characters. Her latest takes on another small-town micro-community, the local choir, as it gears up for its end-of-summer concert.

There's as much heartache as there is happiness in this town. Choir leader Christopher is 37, single and the assistant manager of the local supermarket: "As far as women were concerned, he took what was offered to him along the way… but he made it clear that he had nothing to offer them in return… He was damaged. He knew that."

Christopher's estranged from his brother. He doesn't get off on the right foot either with his new next-door neighbour, an American called Freddie, when her toddler daughter wanders into his garden one morning.

Molly works as the local cleaner to supplement her widow's pension. She has started a new position cleaning for a single mam and when Molly sees her little boy, she's certain that he must be her grandson - he's the image of her own son.

Philip disappeared without a word to New Zealand five years ago, so the dates are right for this child with his "little face, look, the dark-fringed grey eyes, the full mouth, the sharp nose, the small cleft in the pointed chin" to be his.

Meanwhile, her daughter Emily has just fallen in love but with the wrong kind of man. She has written five years' worth of letters to Philip that she keeps in a box upstairs: "Five years' of letters he'd never read, and still she went on writing them. It was all she could think of to do, her only way to feel in any way connected with him."

After the plot has been laid, the book begins coasting on its own momentum and Meaney's very diverse characters start colliding and breaking each other open. Lots of novels have had similar set-ups but the charm here is all in the writing.

The interwoven lives of Molly and her neighbours perfectly illustrate, in spare, moving prose, the desires, disappointments, and, ultimately, the beauty in day-to-day life. You instantly warm to all of the characters.

They're all thoughtfully drawn, by a writer who really cares about them.

This might sound like the outline of a very cosy novel and, on one level, it is. It isn't quite as sparkly as it could be, the humour is very gentle and the romance is romantic rather than hot. But Meaney's characters are all so likeable it makes a very soothing read and has enough in the way of story to keep you absorbed.

Meaney manages to give it a sharper edge by universalising many of her characters' problems and by insisting that change, however uncomfy, is sometimes necessary and healthy. There is nothing cosy about that.

She leaves the door open for a sequel in the end, not everything is neatly tied up. This is a quiet book, but one that leaves you wondering how the characters are getting on long after you've finished it.

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