Sunday, 19 April 2015

'What Becomes of Us' by Henrietta McKervey

I received a copy of this title, from the publishers, for review purposes...

It's fast approaching the fifty year anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, and plans for commemorations are abound.  Maria Mills is a copy writer with the national TV station and while the Donnybrook office is busy gathering momentum for the celebrations, she is more concerned with forgetting her past.  Recently arrived from London with her young daughter, Anna, she places the child in the care of  Mrs Halpin, a woman who is testing Maria's patience.  Escaping a battered existence in London, she has hopes of a fresh start in Dublin.   Life in 1965 Ireland is not as progressive as it seems and the everyday battles that women encounter are frustrating and restrictive.  When Maria meets Tess, an elderly neighbour, she is pretty sure the old woman has a link to the 1916 Rising.   Could she help bring the untold stories of the women who fought for Ireland's Independence to life, with the help of Tess? 

While we now know the important role that the Cumman na mBan (the women's republican group) played in the 1916 Rising, back in 1965 there was still a cloud of secrecy surrounding their involvement.  The access to national archives gives a a fuller picture of the duties these women performed and how they placed themselves in danger on a regular basis.  Tess is one such woman.  Her diary recounts events from before, during and after the Rising and gives a snapshot of what it was like for a young woman to experience life on the rebel side.
Maria is trying to start a new life.  Her child has now started school  and is in the care of the staunchly Catholic Mrs. Halpin.  Anna adores her new childminder and is oblivious to the tension between her mother and the older lady.  Prayers are recited, Irish language is spoken and Mrs. Halpin seems set on removing all traces of London from the young cailín.  Having a minder has its benefits though, and Maria begins to socialise with some ladies from work, with disastrous results.

This is Henrietta McKervey's debut novel and she has picked a perfect topic, with ideal timing, as the Easter Rising 1916 centenary plans are well under way.  The Cumann na mBan are an organisation with such interesting tales to delve into.  Reading the pension applications online, alone, makes for fascinating reading as proof of duties carried out were required to be able to qualify for pension.  So many stories, photos and new information have surfaced over the past fifty years, so while Tess' story may not seem that outlandish to us now, Maria and her colleagues would have been shocked at the old soldier's tale.  Her story was the one I enjoyed.  I also loved Mrs. Halpin's character.  She was a fiesty widow, who had a sharp, hard exterior but underneath was just a lonely woman who cared deeply for Anna.  I didn't take so well to Maria though.  She was very bland, annoyingly square and openly rude to poor Mrs. Halpin.  Running from your past is all very well, but I just didn't care too much. 

The author writes her descriptive passages with flourish...
 'She looks at the GPO across the road.  It has the solid, dignified air of an elderly lady told as a girl never to heed her looks because they would desert her in time'.
Description of Nelson's Pillar were meticulous and some of Dublin's best known shops get a good mention.  
I did struggle a bit with the short sentences and choppy dialogue. At times the shorthand style that is used in the middle chapters (using character's initials) made for a lot of re-reading previous pages so I could figure out who, or what, I was reading about.  
On the whole, this is a great way of learning about women's involvement in the fight for Ireland's Independence.  Tess is endearing and her story deserves its place in fiction.  I think this would be ideal for all the Irish abroad, as we head towards 2016 and remember the measures taken to secure a Republic. 

What Becomes of Us is available in TPB and ebook format   

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