Monday 19 August 2019

Delightful debut set in Dublin in the 1960s

Henrietta McKervey. Photo: James Gould.
Henrietta McKervey. Photo: James Gould.
McKervey book cover

Anna Coogan

Historical novels are a kind of knight in shining armour for those of us who need dramatics as opposed to a list of dusty facts to make the past come alive.

Maria Mills has returned from London to Dublin, with only her young daughter and a suitcase to her name, and a vague tale of a husband who has died. Being a widow bestows a veil of 'respectability' over her, and stops people asking awkward questions.

She gets a job as a copytaker in RTE, and is assigned to work with a committee organising events and documentaries to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rising. It leads her to becoming obsessed with her reclusive neighbour, Tess, an elderly woman reputed to have been active in Cumann na mBan around the time of the Rising, and also for being a suffragette during her earlier manifestation as a maid in London.

Maria can recognise her own struggles for liberation all the better for trying to understand what Tess lived through 50 years earlier, and as she tries to outrun the shadow of a former love.

Yet Maria's friend Eve is determined to politicise her; one way is by getting her to join her women-only pub crawls around Dublin.

The emerging Women's Movement of the 1960s is entertainingly brought to life in these pub outings - women order drinks, and when the drinks arrive, they also order a pint. This is predictably refused by the publican, as women weren't permitted by the patriarchy to drink pints back then.

So the women knock back the other drinks, and scarper without paying - and all in the name of the 'Campaign for the Pint.'

Debut author Henrietta McKervey has done expansive historical research in her desire to give the reader a vivid sense of time and place in her novel, What Becomes of Us.

The 1960s are evoked with stripy sheets hanging on front doors, patients giving nurses a packet of ciggies as a thank you for their kindness, and drying hair in front of roaring fires.

The 1916 Rising is also called forth convincingly - with the book set in 1965 and as Ireland gets ready to commemorate the anniversary. Through Tess's story, we see the role women played in the Rising, and which is often played down.

It makes this an engaging and, it could be said, a convenient read for anyone who feels they want to know more about the Rising in the run-up to next year's 100th anniversary, and yet doesn't feel like picking up a history book.

McKervey has said she read John Bowman's history of RTÉ, and Renegades by Anne Matthews as part of her research.

You'll certainly feel more prepared for next year's commemorations, and the preparation is a pleasure. This is an atmospheric debut, and the writing is crisp.

McKervey was born in Belfast, and completed an MFA in Creative Writing in UCD. She won the inaugural Maeve Binchy UCD Writing Award.

What Becomes Of US

Henrietta McKervey



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