Nicola White's first novel is a very good thriller that's set persuasively in the Ireland of the mid-1980s and that features two interestingly likeable main characters – one a sceptical but decent detective and the other an 18-year-old girl who becomes a suspect in his investigation.
As with Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the book has had to rely for its publication on a small press in Britain, and it also shares with McBride's novel the distinction of winning a literary award – in McBride's case, the inaugural Goldsmith's prize for fiction (and currently shortlisted for the Folio prize); in White's, the £10,000 Dundee international book prize.
Among the book's admirers have been AL Kennedy, who deemed it "courageous and intelligent", and Val McDermid, who thought it "mesmerising" – probably too strong a word for a novel that occasionally falters but that nonetheless manages to remain engrossing right up to its sombre resolution.
The discovery by two school leavers of a baby's body in the garden shed of a suburban convent school leads to an investigation by detective Vincent Swan, who finds himself unhappy with the account given by one of the girls. She's Ali Hogan and she lives nearby with her widowed mother and her mother's younger brother Davy, who's a temporary visitor from the family home in Co Clare and who's much liked by his flirtatious niece.
Ali, though, harbours the troubling memory of another mysterious infant death from her time on the family farm as a six-year-old, and by the end of the book there's a revelation that links both of these deaths.
White sets her novel in the aftermath of the 1983 pro-life referendum, which disclosed a country that "had screamed itself into a bitter divide over whether it loved its foetuses more than their mothers", and she vividly evokes an Ireland that's trying to discover its own identity (Ali through her vulnerable sexuality) but that's still in thrall to the Catholic church. After meeting a domineering priest who's been enlisted by the nuns to stifle the investigation, Swan sardonically asks a colleague: "Do you ever get the feeling there's more than one police force in this town?" And towards the book's conclusion, he wonders if "the whole country was dotted with tiny corpses waiting to be found".
Swan is an intriguing character about whom we want to know more, as we do about Ali, who has an obstinate streak that runs against her teenage sense of confusion and that gives her a bracing edge. Perhaps the author will revisit both of them in her next novel. Certainly this one is an arresting debut.
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