Rachael English tells a very powerful story about a shameful part of Ireland’s history; the Catholic Church’s homes for ‘wayward girls’. We meet a young girl who has an affair with a married man from her village and becomes pregnant. Her devout parents send for the parish priest and follow his advice to send her to Carrigbrack, a home run by nuns for unmarried mothers. This was one of the now infamous Magdalene Laundries or Asylums that housed upwards of thirty thousand women from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries. The scandal around these institutions broke in the late 1990s when a mass grave was found at one home containing approximately 155 bodies. Since then a formal apology has been given by the Irish government to the women who survived and a compensation scheme set up to acknowledge the damage done by allowing the practice to continue unchallenged for so long. The stories of some of these women have made it into incredibly powerful films such as Philomena where Judi Dench plays a woman trying to find the son taken from her and given to an American family. However, what Rachael English has done incredibly well is create multiple characters showing varied experiences within this history, but also how these institutions affected the women’s families for generations.
There are two timelines across the novel: a present day setting where a retired nurse has a hidden box of paper bracelets, but also flashbacks to the mid-20th Century where we follow the young girl sent into Carrigbrack. In the present day, Kate is recently widowed and when attempting to tidy her husband’s things from the wardrobe comes across a box of tiny paper bracelets. Her niece Beth is staying with her and for the first time Kate tells another member of her family about the origin of all these bracelets. She explains being a nurse in an institution called Carrigbrack, and how saving the baby’s identity bracelets was her small way of preserving the only proof they existed. With them is a tiny notebook where she has recorded any small detail she can remember of their birth mother, date and given name. Beth becomes our equivalent in the book, the modern reader placing 21st Century values onto the past. She is very shocked that her aunt would have anything to do with a practice that now seems barbaric.
Kate describes a very different Ireland, where obedience to the church was paramount and people were more deferential and trusting of those in authority. Then, in a small community, it would be perfectly normal to ask the parish priest to intervene in family matters. More often than not it would have been unthinkable not to take his advice. Beth can’t imagine a country being so judgemental on it’s young women. For some of the youngest girls sex would have been non-consensual and their pregnancy a product of rape or abuse. Yet they were still treated as ‘fallen women’ and punished with heavy work, often right up to their due date. Many girls were kept for up to six months after giving birth to pay the home back for the care they’d received. Then, even if they’d formed a bond, their baby would be adopted, often illegally, and with no warning. Meanwhile, their rapist could still be a pillar of the community back home, maybe enjoying their legitimate family and still going to church with the very same parish priest who placed his victim in these institutions.
In order to portray a breadth of experience, the author has created many, very memorable, characters. My heart belongs to Winnie. Freckled, funny and incredibly mischievous with beautiful curly black hair, she is Patricia’s first real friend at Carrigbrack. Together, when they’re allowed to, they can share experiences and really laugh like the young girls they are. Even having her hair hacked off for insubordination doesn’t dull her spirit, but it tragically means that her cries that she’s in labour go ignored by the nuns while she’s working in the laundry. The consequences are heartbreaking and genuinely made me cry. I found myself desperately hoping that despite being broken with grief, Winnie would find her spirit again and we’d meet her in the later parts of the book. I did struggle a little bit with people’s names on occasion as we went back and forth. The women’s names were changed by the nuns so might have reverted to their own name. Nuns change their names when they join an order. The babies were named by their mother, often renamed by the nuns and again by their adoptive parents. I did get a sense of the bureaucratic nightmare these women faced to find their children again and why many survivor’s of the institutions might struggle with their identity. I found myself being drawn into solving this mystery of which characters belonged to each other. I was also more than a little intrigued by Katie herself. What had led her to work in such a place? Why did she feel so strongly about keeping the bracelets? Beth’s mother is very reticent to talk about the years Katie spent there. Does she simply still subscribe to the old ways and believe that the scandal was best left, swept under the carpet? I couldn’t stop thinking there was more to this frosty relationship.
The children who are found also have very varied experiences and are in different places in life, yet all have felt this yearning to find their roots. Some have been blessed in their adoptive families and are well supported in their search. Others have always felt rudderless and a little bit lost in life; without that sense of being grounded. I was interested in the story of Brandon whose wife Robyn has been urging him to follow up on Katie’s post. What he finally finds explains his lifelong sense of someone or something being missing from his life. He is very conflicted about his birth family, because it comes with what he sees as complications. Ailish is also memorable as she illustrates one possible result of a lifelong lack of self-confidence, borne from the knowledge she was an ‘unwanted’ baby. There is room to heal when these characters find out the truth: they were very much wanted, but stolen; their origins were complicated; or their mothers were forced into accepting they couldn’t care for a child. The reunion is only a beginning. I loved that these characters didn’t just find their birth family. These survivors start to form a network, another type of family, that can only be borne out of shared experience. Now a set of roots intertwined and grown strong from those terrible events that happened to them as young women or babies.