Sunday 18 November 2018

Books: Elegant, evocative tale of magic, malignancy and island miracles

Fiction: The Stolen Child Lisa Carey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,  €16.99

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

Anne Cunningham

The events leading to the evacuation of Shark Island off the coast of Galway in 1960, bear very close resemblance to those which led to the abandonment of Lisa Carey's fictional St Brigid's Island, in the same year.

Shark Island had no pier to speak of, and its inhabitants were effectively held hostage to the mood swings of the Atlantic Ocean.

So too are the imaginary islanders in The Stolen Child.

And with some artful weaving of fact and fiction, history and legend, harsh reality and Celtic myth, Carey (inset) has created an elegant and deeply evocative work of fiction. Although the story is drenched in sea spray and heavy with the perfume of island heather, this is no idyllic ramble.

It's a tale of malignant spirits and piseogs, of miracle cures and sibling rivalry, and at its centre is an American called Brigid, who comes to claim her family holding on St Brigid's Island in 1959.

Brigid's mother was an islander who fled to America and settled on the coast of Maine with Brigid's father, an alcoholic and violent husband.

Although her mother endured countless beatings, she could magically heal her cuts and bruises by her own hand.

Brigid discovers that she herself has the same healing powers, but that's enough back story.

Brigid has come to the island for a reason. She wants to conceive. And the miraculous water in St Brigid's well there is her only hope.

But soon after arriving, she finds that nobody is willing to disclose the location of the well.

The islanders are a clannish lot, suspicious of strangers. Rose and Emer, two island sisters who gradually befriend Brigid, are also reluctant to reveal the island's secrets. Rose is pretty and happily married with a large brood, a kind of earth mother figure, while Emer is disfigured, married to a miserable drinker, and has just one little boy of seven.

Emer is convinced that the fairies will soon take her boy. And Brigid is becoming frantic for a child of her own. The uneasy relationship between Brigid and Emer develops into something which will eventually lead to their undoing.

The Stolen Child, which is based loosely on the ideas in Yeats's poem of the same name, is beautifully written, and has all the page-turning ingredients of a psychological thriller, along with a large dollop of distinctly Irish-flavoured magical realism.

Sunday Independent

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