A common phrase I use in therapy is that ‘no two children have the same parent’ and that phrase kept popping in my head during this novel. This is said because of different circumstances into which each sibling is born. Parents can: be more anxious with a first child, than with younger siblings; or react to a practical change such as a child being ill; or experience post-natal depression; might be going back to work with one child, then stay home with another; be responding to a life event such as a death in the wider family; have different financial circumstances with each child. All of these can change the amount of time, patience, ability to bond that the parent has and affect the relationship between parent and child, as well as the child’s personality going forward.
In this novel we follow dual timelines as Judith Barrow lets the story of a mother/daughter relationship slowly play out. We uncover a singular moment in time that shapes the whole family, especially daughter Irene. We begin in the early 2000s when Irene is caring for her mother who is dying. She is going through all those emotions familiar to the caring role; she’s exhausted and veers between feeling it’s the right thing to do and a deep resentment, that we sense has a root way back in the past. Irene is experiencing a feeling she’s had before, a feeling that her mother has possibly experienced too. The contradictory feeling of hating someone, whilst also loving them fiercely. We go back to 1963 and the birth of Irene’s baby sister Rose. Rose had Down’s Syndrome, and her birth signalled massive changes to Irene’s life, not just in 1963 but for many years to come. As her parent’s fragile marriage truly begins to fall apart, Irene has to turn to her grandmother for support in coping with the dysfunction at home. She feels compelled to protect her little sister from the worst of it and feels an intense love for Rose. Yet, she’s also missing out. Her home life and responsibilities aren’t like other girls of her age and she becomes isolated but for Sam, her friend who eventually becomes her husband. When her father leaves, she is effectively separate from him and despite his weakness, she loves him very much. Her mother is eaten up by resentment and the cares of bringing up two children alone. Then, just as Irene could be making choices about what to do with her life and preparing for her future, her beloved grandmother becomes ill. So, everything that Irene could have dreamed for her life is sacrificed for the care of her family, This made me so angry and I felt deeply for Irene who never gets to fulfil her dreams or shape her own future. Essentially, her own life is sacrificed for the needs of her family.
When our two timelines meet we can see a full picture of what impact Rose’s life and death has had on this family, and particularly her older sister. Rose, Irene and their mother are trapped in a constant whirl of love, care and resentment. Still in the childhood home she can’t leave because she feels her sister’s memory there. At the centre of these feelings is a specific event, but one she doesn’t fully understand because she was a child. The only thing she can do is stay close to the places of her childhood and of her little sister. She’s haunted, but only because she can’t let Rose go. As our narrator, Irene is beautifully constructed – from the sparse and minimal understanding she has of the adult world at eight years old, all the way to a grown woman who doesn’t know who she is without someone to care for. Anyone who has cared for someone long term knows how much it takes from you physically, but also emotionally. You are stripped of your identity until your only reason for being alive is to keep someone else alive. Then, what comes after? How does the carer get themselves back?
It’s not that Irene is without love. No, there has been a lot of love in her life from the love between her and her husband Sam. Her love for her grandmother. Her fiercely protective love for Rose. Will she finally be able to navigate this difficult path and unearth that memory she’s never fully understood? Then, if she does find the truth, will she able to live with its consequences? This is a brilliant study of one woman’s psyche and shows how ordinary lives are often extraordinary.
Meet The Author
Judith Barrow, is originally from Saddleworth, a group of villages on the edge of the Pennines, but has lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for over forty years.
She has an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen. BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University, a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University. She is a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council and holds private one to one workshops on all genres.
Her next book, The Heart Stone, is due to be published by https://www.honno.co.uk/ in February 2021.