Book chat: ‘The Godforsaken Daughter’ by Christina McKenna

The Godforsaken DaughterWhen her father was alive, Ruby Clare didn’t much mind that she was single, serious, plain and sturdy. She and Vinny worked side-by-side on the family farm in Tailorstown, Northern Ireland, toiling together in a way that felt less like work and more like camaraderie.

But after his unexpected passing, Ruby is left to care for her aging, tyrannical mother and ungrateful twin sisters — both of whom fancy themselves sophisticated ladies now that they’ve fled to Belfast, working at a department store and returning only to antagonize Ruby about their starched sheets on the weekends.

Mired in grief and desperate for hope, Ruby discovers a set of mystical objects left by her paternal grandmother — a spiritual woman who died in the lake outside their house. The deeply-religious Martha immediately fears that Ruby has been taken over by an evil spirit, remembering how her mother-in-law — awash in her own grief years before — had eventually committed suicide.

But Ruby is buoyed by the strength and confidence the objects give her, eventually finding the courage to stand up to her family and a sense of peace that she does, in fact, have some control over her own destiny . . . however fleeting.

Alongside the story of Ruby is that of Henry, a psychologist from Belfast who arrives in Tailorstown after fleeing his own wayward life following his wife’s disappearance. It’s the 1980s in Northern Ireland, and unrest is still all around them . . . and in Henry’s soul, too. Not knowing what happened to Constance, his beloved wife, is destroying him — but he’s been told to lay low and “stop looking.” He’s just not sure how.

The Clares and Henry’s lives eventually intersect in Tailorstown, where everyone is yearning for something about unsure how to find it. In the mix, too, are Jamie McCloone, a lonely farmer; Rose, his friend and Ruby’s new confidante; and Father Kelly, the devoted parish priest who tends to the Clares in their darkest moments.

Irish countryside

Christina McKenna’s The Godforsaken Daughter is an enthralling, well-drawn and incredibly evocative story of love, grief, redemption and faith. I couldn’t read a passage or two without picturing the rolling Irish countryside, and the idea of life on a small pastoral farm was intoxicating.

Of course, life for Ruby Clare is far from picture-perfect. I immediately bonded with our heroine as she traverses the strange, awful landscape of life without her father. Her mother, Martha, is a distressingly awful woman who leans mercilessly on her oldest daughter but offers little in return. When Martha threatens to parcel off her late husband’s farm, Ruby shows her first signs of a backbone — and I desperately hoped to see more.

There is so much happening in The Godforsaken Daughter, but it never felt cluttered. First, the time period: set in the 1980s during the Troubles, there is a sense of unrest and simmering violence throughout the narrative. Without giving too much away, several characters are affected by the Troubles. Though I’m not intimately familiar with Irish history, I remember stories of the violence and bombings in Belfast when I visited in 2011. My lack of knowledge didn’t hamper my understanding — and enjoyment — of the story.

And enjoyable it was! I fear my synopsis has made it sound darker than it actually is. Even with mysticism, seances, religious differences and death, The Godforsaken Daughter still manages to be . . . uplifting? interesting? wildly compelling?

McKenna draws each of her characters so vividly, you feel as though you’re sitting in a diner nibbling on pastries with Biddy or cruising through town in the back of Rose and Paddy’s car. Ruby is a Cinderella-like character who longs to be loved and accepted, and she eventually comes into her own. Though she’s in her early thirties, the novel also functions as Ruby’s coming-of-age story.

Irish Sea

Northern Ireland itself comes alive in McKenna’s tale, taking on a shape and personality as distinctive as any other character. I felt like I was on the banks of the Irish Sea, thinking about a different way of life in a town populated by such colorful people. I loved how easily I could picture each of Tailorstown’s residents — even the awful sisters, who were terrible brats I hoped would get theirs.

The Godforsaken Daughter is an engrossing, page-turning read about family, love, faith and moving forward. I adored its country setting, relatable cast and unique plot. By the last page, the loose ends had come together in a way that was deeply satisfying without being predictable. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading McKenna’s other works!

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane

Black LakeNestled in the Irish mountains on a lake so dark the locals call it “black,” the impressive and imposing estate of Dulough sits perched on a hillside. It’s home to John, the stressed but determined patriarch, as well as his wife, two children and members of staff. The daughter of a middle-class Dublin family, Marianne isn’t accustomed to a life of leisure — and can only busy herself with gardening and tutoring Kate and Philip. There isn’t much else to do.

Descended from a long line of wealthy but untitled Irish families, John can hardly bear to reveal the troubled state of the Campbells’ finances — but when he does, a solution must be found. Opening Dulough to tourists seems to be the only way to keep the estate in their possession while trying to release the grip of impending poverty, but the family’s move to a small cottage nearby ends up costing them more than they anticipated.

Johanna Lane’s Black Lake is moody, atmospheric, compelling and strange. At just over 200 pages, it’s a slim novel that still packs a wallop — mostly because of Lane’s interesting storytelling. We know right away a tragedy has befallen the family, and it’s easy to determine what’s transpired. It’s another 100 pages until the truth is finally revealed, however, and when it is? It’s almost like an afterthought. Stated as fact.

That actually worked for me. Really well.

The core of this story is a foursome struggling to find their place in the world — a “room of their own,” if you will. Before we’re given an actual timeline and history of the estate, I believed Black Lake took place in the early twentieth century. Once I realized John and Marianne’s birth dates and college years would put them closer to modern day, I was actually . . . shocked. There’s just something so stately and Downton Abbey about living in an imposing mansion; I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this place could exist in the here and now.

But it could. I felt John’s sense of stewardship over the property acutely; it was obvious that history and tradition mean a great deal to him, and to let Dulough be sold would represent a failure. Through diary entries and the revisionist history John himself pens, we’re introduced to some of Dulough’s past owners and visitors. The epigraph puts it perfectly, in fact:

“. . . I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and shorterm sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.”

— Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

The story is short, and not much “happens.” I assumed the book would revolve around a single incident, and . . . well, it both did and did not. Marianne and John are complex characters, but we’re not privy to most of their thoughts. The narration shifts several times throughout the story, from husband to son back to husband and, finally, to wife. I enjoyed getting Marianne’s perspective the most, especially because she was the most unmoored.

Though I never fell in love with these characters, exactly, I did feel as though I came to truly understand them. The Campbells are captains of a crumbling ship, and the atmosphere Lane creates is thick and palpable. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself standing on a cliff, bracing sea air whipping my hair from my face; I could easily run my fingers across the shoddy cottages or sturdy furniture moved from Dulough, or see the green-capped mountains in the distance.

Black Lake is well-written, interesting, unusual. Not like anything I’ve read recently, and definitely one that gave me pause. Fans of literary fiction, character studies and family dynamics will be intrigued by this one. Though rather sad, it’s a powerful book that would hardly qualify as a beach read . . . but is likely to be one on the lips of readers this summer.

4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review