The year is 1991 when Lillis leaves Dublin for Scotland and a new life, a new start away from the grief-stricken world she finds herself in. Working as a waitress she lives in staff accommodation, learns to deal with her colleagues, and falls in love. Life has come good, away from her mother and brother she forges her way into adulthood her own way.
In the second half of the book we meet Lillas twenty years later, back in Dublin and about to become a mother and wondering, as most women do, what type of mother she will make. Will she be like her own? Verity, her mother wasn’t terribly good at it. An artist she was often neglectful, sharp and impatient with her Lillis and her brother Robin… and she was an alcoholic. Sometimes a recovering alcoholic but even when sober Lillis prepares for the worst before each meeting. Going to Scotland gave Lillis some time away from the responsibility of caring too much, something that seems to have been her role ever since her father left some years before. Lillis has a relationship with her father, his new wife and their two young sons but he isn’t one who can cope with the emotions of a young girl who is looking for support, he loves her best when she is bright and sparkly. Robin is also keen to move out of his mother’s sphere, looking to escape the responsibility of caring for a mother who never put him first. The siblings have a bond born of unspoken hardship and up until Lillis departure have shared the responsibility of Verity.
It would be a mistake to say this is a quiet book, in some parts it is so raw I had to set it aside a while to gather myself in order to continue, but at the same time it is understated; I felt like a spectator to Lillis’s world and felt her joy at new-found love as authentic as the grief that undulates with varying degrees through the whole of the book. That isn’t to say this is a gloomy book though rather it is thoughtful, honest and powerful.
I read the second half of this book, heart in my mouth after the heart-rending close of the first and it was only on completing the entire novel that I found myself hopeful that the twenty years that we don’t hear about first-hand also included many moments of joy for this engaging young woman.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir has written a semi-autobiographical novel, one where bad things happen to good people as well as accurately reflecting the inevitable change in relationships over two decades. I liked Lillis from the beginning, she isn’t painted as a saint and if I were her mother I may well have had a few things to say about her relationships but she doesn’t have that guidance and so battles through the bad times with steely determination. In the early days she can seem much older than her mere twenty years and at others much younger as she worries about other’s opinions of her but this is realistic, we are all made up of different facets and often when an author strives to convince their readers that a person is authentic, this aspect is forgotten and we are presented with uniform characters – Nuala Ní Chonchúir created one that I certainly won’t forget in a hurry!