• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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I once had a forbidden friend. He was funny and brave, had scabbed knees and grubby shorts,
a gleeful grin and fathomless eyes. My co-conspirator and hero.
He called himself Emmet.’

 

Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin is published with Honno Press, an independent co-operative press run by women and committed to bringing you the best in Welsh women’s writing. Sara Gethin has previously been shortlisted for the Not The Booker Prize with her novel Not Thomas, which was published in 2017, also with Honno Press.

When I heard that Emmet and Me was mainly set in the gorgeous location of Connemara, Co. Galway, I was extremely excited to read it. If you are unaware of the wildness and beauty of this western coast of Ireland, you really need to check it out for yourself sometime. It is a landscape that captures and captivates and gets into your soul. Sara Gethin is no stranger to Ireland herself and her passion and knowledge shine through in her writing. I am extremely honoured that my name now features on the front cover, along with a quote from my review here. Emmet and Me is a very special book and I really hope, after reading my review, that you feel encouraged to pick up a copy.

Emmet and Me is narrated by Claire O’ Connell, who recalls the year her life changed course forever. In 1966, Claire was ten years old and, with her brothers William and baby Louis, was shipped off to the West of Ireland following a fracture in their parent’s marriage. Claire, William and Louis were born in Wales. It was all that was familiar to them. Now they were expected to adapt to the very rural home of their Irish grandmother set near the coast of Co. Galway. Their father and his brother, Jack, left Ireland many years ago with no inclination ever to return, for reasons unknown to the children, but now Ireland seems the only solution. Their mother has left the family home in Wales and their father is unable to care for them while holding down a job. Jack, their uncle, brings them on the boat home to Galway for, what the children initially believe, to be a few weeks. But the weeks soon turn into months as they realise that returning to Wales is extremely unlikely.

Their grandmother is an elderly woman set in her ways. She has a roughened exterior but is clearly hiding a past, one she keeps locked away very close to her chest. Claire and William spend the summer weeks exploring the Connemara locality but Louis is too small and is kept on a leash under the kitchen table. The cottage is located near the bay and there is a constant fear that Louis could get out and roam. Oblivious to what is happening in his world he seems content enough to play in the sawdust but Claire and William soon become frustrated with their new home and want to return to Wales. As the summer weeks go by, uniforms are purchased and Claire and William have no choice eventually but to attend the local schools in September.

Outsiders from the very beginning, neither is accepted and the days spent at school are tough and challenging for both children. Claire and William are educated by the religious orders with teaching methods that frighten both children. William is two years older than Claire and, while his experiences in school are never fully explored, the subtleties are sufficient to fill in the blanks. The author focuses in on Claire’s story as it is narrated by her, bringing the reader into the world of a ten year old and her interpretation of the world around her. Claire is very unsettled in school. She loves to read her precious copy of Black Beauty and is forever writing stories with a vivid imagination and a messy pen. Claire has a difficulty fitting in at school and a loneliness takes hold, until one day she meets a young boy, Emmet.

Emmet is in the boys school nearby. With a gentle soul, much older than his years, a secret friendship grows between the two. Claire has no concept of orphanages and industrial schools and she willingly accepts much of what Emmet tells her. He has created a world where he is outside the pain of the daily punishments in his life and Claire naively accepts his version of events. John Boyne’s The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas immediately springs to mind when reading Emmet and Me. The innocence of youth is poignantly portrayed and, without a doubt, will seep into the soul of any reader.

I read approximately 80% of Emmet and Me and I had to stop for a breather. There were tears rolling down my face as one particular scene was reminiscent of an incident in my own life when I was a young child on a beach in Kerry. I had an accident and was cared for with love and affection. There was no love and affection on the pages of Emmet and Me and all I could think of was how lucky I was. What a cherished childhood I had. What a joyous home I grew up in. Sara Gethin creates a fictitious industrial school in Galway but for anyone who knows the area, Letterfrack will come to mind. In 1888 an industrial school for boys was opened there and it remained active until its closure in 1974. The history of Letterfrack is extremely upsetting and will forever be ingrained in the memory of many folk. Now the school is part of GMIT (Galway Mayo Institute of Technology) and some time ago I had an opportunity of walking through the doors and stepping into a classroom. I found it a very haunting and sad experience as the lives of all those young boys flashed in front of me.

With Emmet and Me, Sara Gethin gives the reader the opportunity to momentarily imagine life during those terrible days. The local folk knew what was going on there, yet there was an underlying fear of the authorities. Keeping quiet and minding one’s own business, getting on with the day as best possible was deemed the only way forward.

Emmet and Me is a very emotive and affecting read. Sara Gethin has written something very special, very powerful, capturing the innocence of a beautiful friendship. With characters that are wonderfully portrayed, it is very easy to imagine the joy, the pain, the sorrow and the pure heartache of the lives lived and lost. There is a strength in the simplicity of this story, leaving much to the imagination, which is a credit to the writing ability of Sara Gethin. Emmet and Me is a remarkable tale, a captivating novel that will leave its mark on every reader.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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