Sunday 16 December 2018

'The Trick to Time' book review: Poignant tale of working class heroes

Fiction: The Trick To Time, Kit de Waal, Viking €14.99

Kit de Waal writes about ordinary but extraordinary people, who are quietly living under the radar
Kit de Waal writes about ordinary but extraordinary people, who are quietly living under the radar

Justine Carbery

Author Kit de Waal recently voiced her concern that working class voices are increasingly absent from the pages of books and newspapers. She and others, dismayed at the lack of diversity, got together to crowdfund for an anthology composed of working class authors called Common People.

Such 'Common People' are the stuff of de Waal's books: ordinary, yet extraordinary people, quietly living their lives under the radar. Her debut novel, My Name Is Leon, one of my standout books of 2017, was just this; a harrowing yet heartfelt tale about a mixed-race boy navigating the British foster care system. In it she deals sensitively with issues both unique and universal.

Her second book, The Trick To Time, manages to do the same once again, tackling weighty themes of grief and loss, stillbirth and mental health with a light and delicate touch. In this wonderfully understated book de Waal succeeds in taking the reader on a compelling journey from rural Ireland in the 1960s to Birmingham of the bombings in the 1970s and into the present, where Mona, the main character, ekes out her days, painstakingly painting and dressing handcrafted wooden dolls to sell to buyers in Japan and America.

As well as managing this business, she runs an unconventional counselling service for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths.

Working with the local carpenter, she creates perfectly weighted wooden babies for grieving mothers to take into their arms and relive the experience, helping them to come to terms with their grief.

The book shifts backwards and forwards in time, shuttling between Mona's childhood, her mother's death from cancer, her father's brave efforts to provide a loving and stable home for her, the claustrophobia and boredom that prompts the young Mona to traverse the Irish Sea and rent a room in a boarding house in Birmingham, joining countless other Irish looking for work.

Here she meets the lovely William, whom she marries.

Their marriage is a happy one, and to their delight they realise quite soon that Mona is pregnant.

But on the fateful night of the Birmingham pub bombings she goes into premature labour and delivers a stillborn child, the public tragedy mirroring the private. Her dead daughter is whisked away by nurses even before Mona has had a chance to hold her and when she shouts for her baby, she is silenced by a nurse: "Listen, you have to be quiet, you have to be. If you keep screaming they send for a psychiatrist."

In this searing episode, as well as the 'therapy' sessions, de Waal manages to steer a fine line between heightened drama and raw emotion, with writing that packs such an emotional punch.

Sadly, the death of their child tears the couple apart as each handles it in their own way. But the novel is not all tragic. There are hilarious scenes about dating in the middle years, which help to relieve the genuine sadness that permeates this beautiful novel.

Mona attracts the attention of a neighbourhood gentleman, whose old-fashioned gallant ways entice her to go on several dates.

Mona's efforts to navigate the perilous path of romance are realistically and humorously portrayed, as are the slightly bawdy conversations with her friend Val. But for all the levity, Mona is the voice of many ordinary, middle-aged women who still have an important story to tell.

This story is an engaging, poignant read and I loved it.

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