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The Letter Home by Rachael English

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | General Fiction | Historical Fiction

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

The Letter Home by Rachael English is published with Hachette Ireland and is described as ‘gripping and unforgettable…a rich and heartbreaking novel, moving between the west of Ireland and Boston. A mother’s love, a baby girl, a courageous voyage, and a forgotten story that binds two families separated by an ocean…’

The Great Famine (1845-1849) is a part of Irish history that is ingrained in all of us. If we were to delve back into our family tree we would all be able to uncover a connection, a link to this horrific and extremely tragic part of our past. My family’s roots are very much West Cork based so I have no doubt, with names like Murphy, O’ Driscoll, Collins and Sheehan that I would discover some harrowing stories. Perhaps someday I will take this journey and trace my ancestors from those treacherous times. Who lived? Who died? Who emigrated across the sea in a coffin ship?

During her research for her latest book, The Letter Home, Rachael English came across an image that many of us are familiar with. It was the shocking sketch from an 1849 London newspaper of Bridget O’ Donnell with her two small children.

“The black and white drawing has become one of the defining images of the Famine. A tall, emaciated woman, dressed in rags, is accompanied by two little girls. All three are in their bare feet. One of the children has turned her face away from the artist, as if ashamed of her family’s destitution. The woman, Bridget O’Donnel, was from Kilmacduane Parish in County Clare. All of this is known because what happened to her was recorded by a journalist from the Illustrated London News. In a revolutionary move, James Mahony allowed Bridget to speak in her own voice. She was a real person, not a statistic, not part of a faceless mass of misery.” – Rachael English, Irish Examiner

Bridget’s story, and those of others like her, helped Rachael English to recreate the palpable fear and sorrow of folk who lived through those horrendous years. Knitting together the stories of three women Jessie Daly, Kaitlin Wilson and Bridget Moloney, Rachael English takes the reader on a compelling journey back in time that will pull at all the heartstrings.

Jessie Daly is a journalist living in Dublin who has a career of sorts but not the one she aspired to. Jessie always dreamt of being the type of journalist who would write important and meaningful pieces, but with bills to pay, Jessie resorted to more ‘fluffy’ pieces. Disillusioned with her life, Jessie goes out drinking one evening with a friend and in an act of pure stupidity, she decimates her career in one swift move. With her tail very much between her legs, she goes back home to her family in a small seaside village in Co. Clare. They are embarrassed by her actions, upset by the direction her career and life has taken but they are family, so with nowhere else to go, Jessie slowly re-immerses herself in the local community. Through a conversation with an old school friend she offers her assistance in researching some of the local history from the 1840s, in the hope of distracting herself from her current reality. It isn’t long before Jessie is ensnared by the history she unearths and the connections that arise linking back to her own family history across the generations.

Meanwhile Kaitlin Wilson is unsettled with her perceived perfect life in Boston. A successful career, a successful partner, a successful life borne out of a successful family growing up, why is Kaitlin not content? Always aware of the Irish connection, Kaitlin never really knew where she came from so she decides, as a distraction, to carry out some research. But Kaitlin is totally taken aback by what she uncovers and her distraction soon becomes an obsession as she trawls the internet and other sources in search of her roots in Ireland.

Rachael English introduces us to Bridget Moloney, a young woman from the west of Ireland who was forced to leave everyone and everything familiar, due to starvation, homelessness and poverty in the 1840s. A survivalist, Bridget Moloney knew that a better life could be out there waiting for her, but in order to take the first daunting step, she must make a heart-wrenching decision that will have a lasting impact for the generations that were to follow.

The Letter Home is a novel of many layers with multiple stories running throughout, but, for me, it was the story of Bridget Moloney that had the greatest impact. With appalling descriptions, the horror of the famine is very much brought to life and Bridget’s story symbolises that of many Irish emigrants who were forced into making extreme decisions in order to survive. There is a modern day story of a different tragedy running in parallel that I didn’t really connect with but I do understand why Rachael English decided to include it. It does show how little the past has taught us and how history just keeps repeating itself over the years.

The Letter Home is a novel that will impact every reader in some way. Emigration features in most of our family’s history, with stories passed on across the generations. By incorporating Bridget Moloney’s story into the modern day, a connection is made and what follows is a fascinating account, an engrossing read. Although a tale built on a deep sorrow, it is ultimately a story of belonging and self-discovery. Rich in historical detail, The Letter Home is very much a powerful and emotional tale, one that will endure in the mind long after that final page is turned.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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