Manchester 1984 seventeen year old Sinéad McLoughlin is in Manchester, staying with a relative about to give birth. The plan is to hand the child over for adoption and return home to Dooncurra, a small town in the southeast of Ireland and carry on with her life as if nothing had happened. Of course there is the small matter of hiding the details from her parents Patricia and Noel, after all being pregnant at seventeen is not the done thing even in 1984 where she comes from, but she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it.
Sinéad gives birth to her son, and in one version she carries out her plan, the baby being handed to infertile Margaret and Malcolm Philliskirks believing that this is the best future she can offer her son, in another she names her son Seán, and keeps him.
I enjoy a good ‘sliding-doors’ novel and there are few greater decision points in life than whether or not to keep your son or hand him over for adoption so this is one with the stakes already raised sky high.
In one version we follow Seán, through life, eventually growing up in the same town that Sinéad fled. The consequences of her decision reverberating through the family and her son’s life from thereon in. In the other version Margaret and Malcolm are thrilled to be a family but the exited beginnings don’t guarantee a happy-eve-after for them or their son with all the normal events that can effect any family reverberating through the Philliskirks’ life too.
Ultimately this is a coming of age story, or rather two stories. On the one hand Seán could be seen as a product of his beginnings, an Irish boy surrounded by what felt to be an authentic look at life in a small town through the nineties, on the other Jonathan, who grew up in England a boy who has to come to terms with being adopted.
For a ‘sliding-doors’ story to work the two paths have to diverge to ensure the reader follows without too much confusion and of course those characters and events that appear, however infrequently in both stories, need to be consistent. Simon Bourke handles the problems that could trip-up the unwary novelist with ease. This is an author who is skilled at characterisation and in particular, Seán’s story is incredibly powerful giving rise to a real understanding of who this boy is, how he thinks and critically how he reacts. Jonathan’s story is told slightly more remotely but ultimately is no less powerful for that.
Be warned, this is at times a heart-breaking story and unusually for my reading, the teenage scenes being told by a man about a man can be quite difficult to read. There is swearing, drugs and sex with plenty of forays into a teenage boy’s imagination which lend a very sharp edge to the storytelling. This is also a book that made me shed some tears, although at other times it had me smiling at the relationships between siblings, parents and their children, and friendships. There are all manner of interactions without exception giving the reader that feeling of reality which can be hard to pull off, especially in a wide cast of characters.
An enlightening look at a fairly recent past told with a range of emotions and spell-binding for the force of the characters, And the Birds Kept on Singing is one powerful debut novel.
And the Birds kept on Singing is my nineth book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in August 2017 so I gain another third of a book token! That’s three books earned!