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The Island Girls by Noelle Harrison

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Women’s Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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‘She’d been steadily drifting further and further away from her life before. She would never get it back. She knew that. But maybe her destination was a place where she could forget, and be forgotten? This was all she wanted right now.’

The Island Girls by Noelle Harrison is published with Bookouture. It is described as ‘an unputdownable and unforgettable story of impossible choices and two sisters who would do anything for one another‘.

Emer is a young Irish woman living and working as a nurse in Massachusetts General Hospital. A personal upheaval, a shattering tragedy changes everything for Emer and her life shifts in a very unexpected manner. When Emer loses her beloved sister to cancer, Emer is rattled with guilt and is unable to cope with her life, her relationships and her reality as she knows it. She makes a spontaneous decision to leave her job, her life in Massachusetts, to take up a new position somewhere far away from the familiar, from the memories. Her new role will be as a live-in carer providing palliative assistance to an elderly lady, Susannah Olsen, who is living an isolated and solitary existence on the island of Vinalhaven off the mid-Maine coast.

Emer arrives on the island unprepared for what lies ahead. As she steps off the ferry she is taken aback by the silence, the immediate sense of anonymity she experiences.

‘As she walked off the boat, it hit Emer how quiet the island was. All she could hear were the gulls crying, and the water lapping against all the fishermen’s boats…..she hadn’t considered how isolated this island really was. As she walked down Main Street, it felt as if she were walking back in time.’

It is very clear from the initial meeting that Susannah Olsen does not appreciate having a stranger imposed on her. Susannah has lived on her own for quite some time and having a carer is not on her agenda. Emer was hired by Susannah’s niece but, without Susannah’s support, it is clear from the get-go that Emer has her work cut out for her.

Susannah and Emer both carry their own personal baggage, their own grief that causes each a great pain. As the days pass, Emer begins to unravel snippets of Susannah’s past. She too has kept her reasons for being there to herself, but her own shell begins to crack just a little, as her relationship with Susannah thaws.

Something is not right on the island. The locals are secretive about incidents long hidden in the annals of time. As Emer picks up on bits and pieces, we get to hear about Susannah’s life and the events that lead to her lonely existence among a community that carries much hostility toward her. Susannah had a sister, Kate, who died a tragic death and Emer soon realises that she has a lot more in common with Susannah than she thought. They share a grief, a longing for life to have been different. Emer has time to change her ways but for Susannah, the past is a lot more challenging to reconcile.

‘I guess our life on the island was one which never fit you right. I like to imagine you some days when I look out the window across the harbour, all those miles of sea and land between us. But, sister, we are always connected.‘

Emer and Susannah’s stories are intertwined throughout the novel taking the reader back in time with some fascinating insights into a very different world. Noelle Harrison sensitively handles themes of grief, betrayal, abuse, guilt and loneliness. It is an emotive story, one that, at times, will anger, sadden and bring joy to the reader. I particularly enjoyed reading about Susannah’s story. Her life and the decisions she made were so compelling and interesting, her pain and heartache so very evident off the pages.

The Island Girls is a story about women and their struggle for independence, about their determination and strength to survive in a world that is not always as they were expecting or hoping for. It is also a story of sisters as it explores that very unique and special bond that exists in this most fragile of relationships.

The Island Girls is an engaging, well-paced tale, an enjoyable read.

“These women were islands in a sea of male voices. They inspire me in all that I write as does the wild and lush autumnal landscape of Maine with it’s glorious foliage, piles of pumpkins and deep blue ocean.”
– Noelle Harrison

(c) Swirl and Thread

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