Review of Scourged by Michelle Dooley Mahon

Michelle kindly sent me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

I love a good quote, so I was immediately happy to open the book and find several quotes at the beginning of the book.  My two favourites being:

‘You need chaos in your soul to find the dancing star.’ Friederich Nietzsche.

‘Sometimes one word can recall a whole span of life.’  Edna O’Brien.

Michelle and I already have something in common, she seems to revere and respect Edna O’Brien as much as I do.  Hoorah!

On to the book.   Written as a dual narrative, Scourged tells the story of Siobhán, during two different time periods.  Written in Siobhán’s  voice as she is growing up and throughout her life, where she talks about meeting her beloved husband Tom and about her children, Michelle included. And the other part of the narrative is Michelle describing what happened during a ten year period during which Siobhán became increasingly ill with Alzheimers.

There were several aspects that struck me immediately about the book after reading the first few chapters – Michelle describes life in Ireland in such detail that it is like going on a cultural and deeply intimate journey to the country.  She talks about the traditions, the singers, writers and cultural phenomenon in Ireland during the 70’s, 80’s and the present day.  It is joyful.  She is also extremely funny.  There were so many laugh out loud moments in the book that I could hardly keep up.   However this is not a light book.  It deals with a serious subject in a heartfelt way.  Michelle’s love for her mother Siobhán is evident from the start.  They shared a deep bond as is much in evidence as the book progresses.   I almost cried when I read that she quoted from Shakespeare the refrain from Macbeth:

“to morrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

to the last syllable of recorded time,

and all our yesterdays have lighted fools,

the way to dusty death, Out, Out, brief candle!”

When my own father was dying of cancer, he repeated this refrain often and it was yet another cultural reference that I appreciated, among many throughout the book.

Michelle’s great gift is observation.  She describes the characters she meets both in the nursing home and as Siobhán herself talks about her life and that of Michelle’s.  My favourite parts were the cultural references such as in 1979 when she says (as Siobhán):

‘Beckett was alive and well and hating Paris, Edna O’Brien had left Ernest Gebler and walked from Chelsea to Wimbledon to start a new life minus the sons she adored.  Women burnt bras and started to challenge church and state, dispensing contraception from the North out of suitcases filled with french letters and pills.’

If you have ever nursed anyone through dementia or alzheimers, there will be so much in this book that you will be able to identify with.  The extreme sadness of watching someone you love disappear before your eyes is beyond horrible.  Michelle writes with such honesty and compassion, and the story of her relationship with her mother is so poignant, I had to get the tissues out several times.

There is so much in this book that I feel it needs a second reading.  It does require determination, as it is a long read and I felt the excerpts of Siobhán’s life, whilst beautiful and brilliantly written, could have done with some editing.

But you are certainly getting your money’s worth and I would highly recommend this book.     You can purchase it by clicking on the link below:

http://www.shellshock.ie/scourged

Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page for details on how to buy!

 

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My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal.

Kit De Waal has a big heart.  Big.  You just know this from reading her book.  Only someone with a big heart could write such a beautiful story.

Born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer, and an African-Caribbean father she also has personal and professional experience of foster care and the adoption system.   This is in evidence in her debut novel ‘My Name is Leon.’

Written in the third person, but from the perspective of the nine-year-old Leon, the novel begins with Leon happily at home with his mother Carol and his baby brother Jake.  Leon has had to grow up fast.  His mother isn’t very good at looking after him and he is left ‘holding the baby’ literally and figuratively speaking.   But he doesn’t mind.  He loves his baby brother Jake.   It soon becomes clear that Carol is entirely incapable of looking after her children.  They are soon taken to live with a foster carer called Maureen. 

All of this would be hard enough for any nine-year-old to deal with, but when Jake is taken away, Leon’s world begins to crumble.  The sections dealing with the separation are heart breaking.

‘Leon uncurls his brother’s fist and kisses it suddenly, Leon’s trousers are too tight and he wants a wee and his legs feel bendy and he’s very angry with Maureen.  He picks up the yellow truck and gives it to Jake and tries to stand still.  Something inside is telling him to run away or to hit the lady but Leon stands still.  Everything goes quiet.’

I was sobbing by this point and the pain for Leon doesn’t end there, as he fails to understand why adults never tell him the truth and why his mother isn’t coming for him, and where has Jake gone?

De Waal is never overly sentimental and the innocence of Leon’s thoughts and feelings bring such emotional intensity to this story.  

We follow Leon’s turbulent life as he is moved yet again to live with Sylvie, Maureen’s sister, when Maureen falls ill.  His life changes when one of the social workers (amusingly called Zebra by Leon because she has stripes in her hair) gives him a BMX bike.  He goes for a ride and comes across an allotment and it is here that he will find the most unlikely friendships in Tufty and Mr Devlin. These two unique characters bring humour to the story.  They also bring another element to the novel about society and how it treats its citizens. As we learn more about them, we learn how complicated the world can be for those who don’t feel they belong.

Although this novel is heart breaking, it is also funny and warm and deliciously enjoyable. 

There is one part in the book where I just couldn’t’ stop laughing.  Leon has a gun which is just a toy, but he thinks it is real.  During a demonstration near his home in London Leon finds himself lost and is desperate for help. So he holds up the gun. Then he sees his friend Tufty and:

‘Leon raises the gun to wave and everyone drops to the floor.’ I found that hilarious, maybe it’s just me, but read in context it is very funny. 

De Waal takes on many serious topics such as racism, class, alcohol and abandonment, but the book never feels heavy going and this is largely due to the wonderfully unique voice of Leon.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I simply adored it.  It is my book of the year so far.  I think it is going to be a huge best seller, because people will talk about this book and word of mouth will ensure it is widely read.  I am thrilled for the author because it deserves to be.