To entitle a novel is to sum it up into a tidy shorthand with the objective of attracting attention and arousing the curiosity of potential readers. The task is to condense some 80-90 thousand words into five or six which encapsulate the characters, story, and themes which have obsessed the novelist for years.
The desktop file of my work-in-progress had been labeled ‘fight novel’ throughout, and coming up with lists of titles was never more than a diverting, ‘fun’ conundrum; the priority was to get the thing written. But by the time editing was underway and a publication date set, finding the right title became imperative. My editor’s input was invaluable at this point. Eventually fight gave way to flight and between us we decided on A History of Running Away.
For one of my characters, a gynecologist, running is ‘the closest she gets to religion’ and gives her the space she needs to unwind from her stressful job. In another section of the book, running is the necessary torment Jasmine must endure in order to be permitted into the boxing ring, but as her endurance improves she comes to love the feeling of invincibility it gives her.
My characters also literally run away. Teenage Jasmine runs away first from her midlands home, then from London, where everything goes wrong. In Maryland, Ali escapes from grandparents she didn’t know she had until the recent death of her mother. Margaret attempts to run away from a Mother and Baby Home in 1950s Ireland. And the gynecologist worries that she might have applied for a job in London from the subconscious desire to run away from the fraught atmosphere of her own hospital, due to the effects of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
It took the death of Savita Halappanavar to confront me with my own history of running away. I was a schoolgirl in a convent boarding school when the 1983 abortion referendum was held and, though vaguely aware of the divisive campaign, I was, like most teenagers, mostly preoccupied with myself. When I finished my degree, I left for Los Angeles where I remained for three years, missing the first of the Eighth-related scandals, the X-case. On my return to Ireland, I was busy again, with work and children. Thus, I made it almost entirely through my reproductive years without any direct effect of the ’83 referendum. Like my characters, each of whom comes to realise that the problem she is running from remains unresolved, I felt something like survivor’s guilt when the news of Savita Halappanavar broke.
My novel was inspired by the contrast between Savita Halappanavar’s death and Katie Taylor’s London Olympic success. It came as a surprise to me to learn that women’s boxing had been outlawed until as late as 1999, and that it had come so far in so short a period of time, as embodied by Taylor, seemed to give cause for optimism. Boxing offered me the perfect passion for my teenage runaway to pursue, in secret, in eighties Ireland.
But Savita Halappanavar’s death told another story. Like so many others, I struggled to understand how such crazy thinking had been overwhelmingly voted for in 1983 and allowed to remain the law of the land for so long, despite overwhelming evidence that it was dangerous for women, not to mention that it rendered Irish women second class citizens for the entirety of their reproductive years.
I did not make a connection initially between this and another tragedy we were reminded of, a little over a year later, on the 30th anniversary of the death of Ann Lovett, a 15 year old who died giving birth in a field while a whole town claimed not to have known she was pregnant.
The interplay between reality and fiction continued as the novel progressed, and I became more and more angry as my characters led me to explore Mother and Baby Homes, illegal adoption, and violence against women. Finally, the common theme running through my characters’ stories emerged, that of bodily autonomy. Between them, my characters’ interwoven lives encompass the difficult history that has long existed between the Irish State and women’s bodies.
Ultimately, it is the Irish State which has been doing the running away. For more than three decades, despite scandal after scandal, it has shied away from any meaningful engagement with abortion and the problematic Eighth, content to pretend that Irish women do not have abortions. This fits neatly with its historical-yet-lingering preferred version of women as virgin/wife or whore, where a woman who just fancies a shag does not compute, and where men seem to play no part in the impregnation process.
The Citizen’s Assembly and the establishment of an Oireachtas committee to examine its findings give cause for cautious optimism, but it remains to be seen whether our (as ever heavily gender-imbalanced) Government is finally willing to break the cycle of running away from problems that directly affect 50% of the population it purports to represent.
(c) Paula McGrath
Author photograph (c) Paul Sherwood
About A History of Running Away:
In 1982 Jasmine wants to box, but in 1980s Ireland boxing is illegal for girls.
In 2012 a gynaecologist agonises about a job offer which would mean escape from the increasingly fraught atmosphere of her Dublin hospital. But what about her mother, stuck in a nursing home?
And in Maryland Ali, whose mother has recently died, hooks up with a biker gang to escape from grandparents she didn’t know she had.
Gradually revealing the unexpected connections between the three women, A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are.
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