Anxious but optimistic newlywed Mrs Owen McDowell-nee-Crowley braces herself for the first day of the rest of her life. Huddled on board a small boat, she fights the rising seasickness, clutches her husband’s arm, bids farewell to her tiny attic room above the family shop, and focuses on the white cliffs of Inishbawn and, more importantly, her future as “a woman of the Island”.
She leaves behind her heartbroken and angry parents, horrified that their daughter, Margaret, would forsake a comfortable future in the small market town of Ballymona for harsh island life. Not to mention the shame of her turning up her nose at the courtship of Joe Kavanagh, the most eligible merchant’s son in town, in favour of a primitive blow-in. And so we have our first introduction to the dominant theme of Phil Young’s In a Place Apart: matters of the heart.
Despite the frosty reception from her in-laws, Margaret adjusts to married life with the love and support of her husband. Gradually her loneliness subsides and she settles into her new homestead, the modest farmhouse and land that make up Derryglas. The atmosphere lifts with news of Margaret’s pregnancy and with it the possibility of a McDowell heir.
Alas, it is not to be. Tragedy strikes when the baby is stillborn. From here the story takes on a noticeably darker and sombre tone.
Young’s evocative descriptions of the island’s bleak and windswept landscape echo the heavy issues of post-natal depression and the stigma attached in rural Ireland in the mid-20th Century.
Margaret becomes more and more withdrawn, Owen more and more concerned and the in-laws more and more judgmental.
A second pregnancy helps a little and baby Nessa breathes life into Derryglas once again. Being only vaguely aware of her mother’s occasionally odd behaviour, young Nessa is, in the main, a happy and well-adjusted child.
Her presence helps heal old wounds and it’s not long before Margaret and her parents attempt reconciliation. Nessa is shipped off to board with the Crowleys, help out in the shop and attend St Imelda’s school on the mainland.
Young, educated and longing for home, she turns her attentions to Killian, the son of an island farmer. Nessa’s dreams of their own farm, family and even a job as teacher at the island’s national school are dashed when Killian reveals plans of his own. Nessa is left heartbroken and disillusioned.
It seems Margaret’s bad luck has rubbed off on her daughter as Nessa’s time is now devoted to attending to her ailing mother and, when the inevitable occurs, her widowed father.
Shortly afterward it becomes apparent that the third generation of Crowley/ McDowells will grace the pages. Orlagh is a strange character. Raised by her single mother, Nessa, who has long since fled Inishbawn, Orlagh knows nothing of island life and Derryglas.
Her world, one of step-sisters, Friday night drinking binges, and teenagers who backpack around Europe, couldn’t be further removed from Margaret’s. Yet blood runs thicker than water and the lure of her family’s past draws Orlagh to the island during a summer that exposes family secrets and brings much needed closure.
Young writes well when dealing with Margaret and Nessa. Orlagh, on the other hand, falls a little flat and you can’t help but feel she’s more of a convenient plot device than a living breathing character. If you’re looking for something to tug on the heartstrings alongside the fire of a cold winter’s eve then this is the book for you.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Independent. You can check it out here.