Saturday 16 December 2017

Trouble brewing in big house as scandalous secrets exposed

Fiction: The Ballroom Cafe: Secrets Can't Last Forever, Ann O'Loughlin, Black and White Publishing, pbk, 322 pages, €11.28

Scandal in the big house: Ann O'Loughlin
Scandal in the big house: Ann O'Loughlin
Anne McLoughlin
The Ballroom Cafe

Maggie Armstrong

Irish people are only now learning about the forced adoption of babies born to unmarried mothers in mother-and-baby homes, a money-making scheme which may have gone on until the 1970s. Ann O'Loughlin quite fearlessly enters this little-explored ground in her first novel.

A long-time Irish Independent journalist and now reporter with the Irish Examiner, this time she bends the facts into a tale of scandal heaped upon scandal.

Setting her story in remote Co Wicklow in 2008, the author creates a home for our imagination in Roscarbury Hall, the tumbledown mansion shared by ageing sisters Ella and Roberta O'Callaghan.

Slow-marching, romantic prose draws us into an old world that is rustic, genteel, quaint - almost de Valera's Ireland preserved in aspic.

Scandals lie in wait. It emerges the sisters don't speak, they communicate through notes. (The many epistolary exchanges in the novel inspired the designers to add as many naff forms of handwriting. Though a book shouldn't be judged on its fonts.) There is a "hard frost, thick and deep, between them".

Struggling to repay a bank loan, Ella opens a café in the faded Roscarbury Hall ballroom, turning out lemon drizzle, chocolate and ginger cakes for the local citizens to gossip over. And when you open the Big House to the public, old ghosts are going to come to the party, too.

As the book's subtitle states, in case we didn't know it, "Secrets can't last forever," and an adoption scandal unravels when Debbie Kading from Ohio shows up in search of her birth mother.

The spotlight turns to the Order of the Divine Sisters up the road, and their attempts to destroy the evidence of decades of lies and cruelty.

We'll say no more about the scandal, since you wait until after page 100 for it to emerge.

The Ballroom Cafe gives us three sides of a sad story: mothers, babies, nuns, jumping between perspectives. It does seem a pity that Sisters Assumpta, Consuelo et al get a similar Roald Dahl treatment to that of the nuns in the films Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters, with the author inclined to enhance the disgrace of their gormless cover-up with hollering phrases like "bastard child".

This is a novel with many mothers and babies, sisters and Sisters, and there are a lot of ballrooms, ball gowns, beautiful brooches (a lot of talk of brooches, for some reason), bone china and endless coffee and cakes, leaving us to conclude it might be more 'women's fiction' - not for you hard men out there.

Whether fiction explicitly sold on secrets and scandals feels appropriate for a part of history that is scandalous enough without artistic licence, is up for discussion.

At one point, an aggrieved Ella, "could not bear them all talking about it non-stop, as if it were some big scandal instead of the tragedy it was stirring up to become".

You have to feel for her.

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