Moments to treasure in a lonely island life
Alison Jameson's third novel, Little Beauty, is a thing of beauty in itself, a gem of a book. It is a dark, richly textured tale, peopled by complex, flawed characters, who evince both our compassion and contempt. A strange, hypnotic story, written utterly without sentimentality, it nevertheless tears at the heart-strings. It is as much about the indiscriminate sea, and the relentless wind and rain, as about the eccentric islanders. The issues, the stigma of being a single mother in 1970s Ireland and the pressure to conform to social mores, may have been dealt with before, but never with such achingly beautiful writing and in such a whimsical way. The phrases and images linger long after you have put the book down and certain moments, like the wedding scene, are both hilarious and heart-breaking.
Alone at 38, Laura Quinn lives on Inis Miol Mor – the remote, windswept Whale Island, off the west coast of Ireland. She is considered a bit of an oddball by the small-minded, clannish local community, who gossip and snipe at her strange ways. Her father died at sea when she was a teenager and her mother committed suicide by jumping from a cliff, leaving the young Laura to fend for herself. With no other means of support, she collects and sells seaweed for a living, her only friends a mute boy, Lucas, and a commitment-phobic lover, the lighthouse keeper, Martin Cronin. Faced with his reluctance to marry her, she opts to leave the island, taking up a position on the mainland, as housekeeper to a wealthy family, the Campbells, a choice that will have life-long ramifications for her.
She is back on the island within the year, and gives birth to a much-loved son. In a novel, which is melancholic in tenor, drenched in persistent rain, and dogged by Learesque storms, baby Matthew brings a measure of sunshine to Laura's lonely life. In a state of wonder at the possibility of joy, Laura showers Matthew with unconditional love, albeit in her own, quirky way. This beautiful mother-son relationship is deftly drawn, making the subsequent events all the more tragic.
Lured by Martin's kindness to the child, and the islanders demand for conformity, Laura consents to marry, but not without a last ditch, unsuccessful attempt to jump on the ferry and escape to the mainland once again.
Little Beauty is not a light read, but despite the bleakness of the landscape and the unfolding events, Jameson has given us a sophisticated story that is deeply engaging and beautifully written.