One year ago, I sent off a final draft to the Dundee International Book Prize. The prize is for unpublished novels, and offers the winner not only the heart-and-purse expanding sum of £10,000, but a publishing contract with Glasgow-based indie Cargo to boot.
The book was my first novel, ‘In the Rosary Garden’. It had taken me several years to write (and rewrite), as I discovered – by doing –how a book is constructed. On the way, I managed to gain an agent and the support of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award Scheme. I thought that publication, if it was to come, would be by the conventional route of the typescript wandering its slow way around publishers’ offices. Instead, the book won the judges’ favour, and within one surreal 24-hour period I went from relative obscurity to prize-winning and published. It was like finding the express elevator after five flights of slogging up the stairs. At a time when publishers seem averse to the untried and untested, it was the very definition of a lucky break.
I have lived in Scotland for many years now, but I grew up in Dublin. My reasons for leaving Ireland were primarily economic. I worked in the arts, and there were virtually no arts jobs in mid-eighties Ireland, so I took up the opportunity of a post in a gallery in Glasgow. I think that if you leave your native home, it forms a kind of division within you – an imaginary part of you stays back there, living a phantom life.
So when, after years of experimenting with short-form essays and fiction, I felt the desire to write a full length book, I found myself returning to that time and place, and specifically to a file of yellowed newspaper cuttings I had put aside years before (as if I subconsciously knew their purpose). The cuttings all related to The Kerry Babies Tribunal, held in 1985. For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t around, it started out as an investigation into how a young woman and her family had confessed to a murder they could not have committed, a case that involved the discovery of two dead babies in separate locations.
My book does not follow that particular story, but I used it as a starting point to explore infanticide as a dark thread running through that time, the way women’s bodies were discussed in public forums, the ignorance and the casual misogyny, the loud exhortations of the primacy of life – of theoretical babies – contrasted with the shaming of woman who found themselves pregnant. And though we want to feel that Ireland is a very different place now, the echoes of that time keep sounding, thirty years on.
The novel is told through the viewpoint of two characters Ali Hogan, an eighteen year old girl who feels the excitement of her life spread out ahead of her, and Vincent Swan, the detective who leads the investigation into the newborn found dead in the garden of Ali’s Dublin convent school. Ali is thrust into the media spotlight – including an appearance on the Late Late Show – through her role in the discovery, but flees the spotlight and retreats to her uncle’s farm in Clare where she starts to put together fragments of an older tragedy.
I wanted to write a book that would combine the immersive plot of a thriller with real depth of character, and have been gratified that readers seem to have responded to that approach. One of the judges for the prize was the novellist AL Kennedy who described it as ‘A moving, intelligent and courageous book – both a family story and a genuine thriller.’ And Val McDermid as ‘A mesmerising tale of secrets and lies.’
Moving on from such immodest quoting, let me confess to an attack of trepidation. Soon, very soon, my publishers are launching the book in Dublin, at the wonderful Gutter Bookshop. I feel more nervous about what an Irish audience will make of the book than is reasonable. So much of a writer’s role is now played out away from the desk, in public, through readings and appearances, blogs like this. It can feel very much like that cardinal sin of old – ‘Making a show of yourself.’
Help me out, reader, come along to the launch and have a mingle, a glass and a chat. It’s a kind of homecoming, after all.
Gutter bookshop, Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar at 6.30pm on Tuesday the 25th March 2014.
(c) Nicola White
‘In the Rosary Garden’ is in bookshops now or available online here.
About In the Rosary Garden
Ali Hogan is leaving school, all the possibilities of adult life glistening before her, when her discovery of a murdered newborn in the convent garden in Ireland shatters her world and resurrects half-formed memories of her childhood. For detective Vincent Swan, this baby’s resting place in the grounds of a prosperous school, in an Ireland riven by battles of religion and reproduction, makes the case a media sensation even as the church moves to suppress it. Swan is no friend of the Catholic church; Swan doesn’t have many friends. Even his own wife is a mystery to him. Ali flees the media spotlight, seeking refuge at her uncle’s farm in remote Buleen where she starts to put together the fragments of an older tragedy, another child’s death. Meanwhile in Dublin, Swan’s investigation is stalling, forcing him to consider that the scraps of evidence point to Ali Hogan herself…