by Jane Ainslie
In The Island Child, Molly Aitken’s first novel, readers are taken to a barren, Irish island, where only America lies beyond the horizon. It may be the 1980s, but Inis is a place where idols of Jesus and the Virgin Mary live alongside tales of selkies and faerie children. When it comes to gender roles, the place also remains in the past: only boys get to experience the reckless freedom of childhood. Girls are shut away in the house until they are old enough to marry.
The story alternates between Oona’s childhood on Inis and her adulthood in Canada, where Oona settles with her husband Pat and raises their daughter. Oona’s childhood is poisoned by superstitious beliefs instilled in her by her mother and the crude moral carrots and sticks of her religion. The reader feels acutely how trapped Oona is in that hut with Mam, who uses religion to justify the hatred she feels for her daughter.
One of Aitken’s gifts as a writer is her ability to evoke a world, and the immediacy of the detail is at times astounding—the bed cover that is “smooth as a church window,” the broken umbrella flapping in a rainy Galway street “like a dead crow’s wing,” elderly Aunt Kate standing in the doorway with her smear of pink lipstick. It is often said, though, that a writer’s strength is also her weakness, and this is true when it comes to Aitken’s remarkable descriptive abilities. The prose is so packed with detail that it often leaves little room for the story to breathe, and the characters are not given the chance to inhabit Aitken’s carefully crafted settings as fully as they might. The constant transition between time periods is also an obstacle to becoming immersed in the story.
Still, there is much to be admired here. Besides her gift for atmosphere, Aitken also has a talent for revealing the invisible dynamics between characters. This is perhaps most poignantly demonstrated in the winding path Oona’s life follows; a girl who hated her Mam, she becomes a woman who puts up the same emotional walls between herself and her daughter.
Ultimately, the soft angst of Irish motherhood is at the heart of The Island Child. It hangs in the corners of a room, in the shadow of a lace curtain, and in Oona’s fingers as they trace the curves under the wooden table where she hides from her young daughter in a heartbreaking role reversal of mother and child. The story shines most in these quieter moments, when we are allowed to feel what remains unspoken between two people.