I’d never thought of visiting Ireland until I read books by Irish writer Maeve Binchy. A friend recommended her highly in 1997 and I’ve read all her books except this book and Circle of Friends, which are her earlier books, because I had purchased these two in a single thick cover book which weighed a ton.Binchy passed away some years back and when I saw an advertisement promoting a yoga retreat in Ireland, I heeded the call. But first, I wanted to bring back that familiar feeling of Dublin as I had imagined it while reading Binchy and so, I went to the library to borrow these two books to see me through my fifteen days of travel through the Irish Wild Atlantic Way.
Like many of her other books which I had reviewed in this blog, the book comprises chapters of short stories on the lives of many characters, each bonded by a common thread, either a town, a holiday, or in this case, a school in a town called Shancarrig – the old rock in Irish. Each chapter spans from early 1930 to 1970, from which we learn the trials and traumas of each protagonist as they grow up in this small village, surrounded by people they’ve known their whole lives, attending the same school next to a beech tree, where each generation of graduates would carve their names on the trunk.
There’s Maddy, the school teacher who thought herself in love with the young visiting priest, Father Barry, and wanted to run away with him to a missionary in Peru, only to have him spurned her love. But then when she received a letter from him one day, begging her to take a train to Dublin to see him, her heart soared.
There’s the teacher couple, the Jim and Nora Kelly, who so much wanted a child but was denied, until Nora’s orphan niece landed on their door step. Would her Polish father living in the United States come and claim her one day when he’s saved enough for the freight?
Besides these adults, there are stories of the class of children growing up. Leo, who lives in the largest house there, called The Glen, who harbours a secret. Her friend Vanessa, whose parents run the only hotel there. Eddie, Foxy, Niall – how would these village lads grow up in an Ireland still draped in poverty.
What is odd is the inclusion of two new characters, both visitors to the village, Richard and a new couple Darcys near the end of the book. I would have thought there was enough people to add to the story without these people, although the story is still engaging its wanton way.
Binchy’s tales are easy to read, their characters likeable when you get to know their stories eventually, like everyone you meet. The impression created by another’s opinion is rarely the right one, and we learn this here in this book as we read how each character thinks about the others. The 50s-60s was a conservative period where chastity was valued and good girls don’t sleep around until marriage. Class behaviour and social division are obvious between the rich and the poor, even as the children attend the same school. The writer has a talent of weaving in incidents that connect between the chapters of protagonists, which I imagine her doing up in a chart. Most importantly, this book connects me to Ireland and Irish history as we drove pass ancient little villages, with its own schools, shancarrigs, and beech trees.