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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The Island Child

"It was then I started sewing the patchwork with the pieces of old clothes for her. I'd seen one in a shop in town and the little woman explained how her grandmother made them from clothes that no longer fit or were too torn to be worn. 'It's a record of a history,' the woman said. I didn't know how to tell Joyce about my past but I could stitch it together for her. No words, only patches of worn color."

Why do so many novels of Ireland involve a journey to North America and often a subsequent return to native shores? There is a long connection between the two lands through immigration and the enigmatic pull of the Isle of Eire on many of us here in the U.S., which Molly Aitken's debut novel The Island Child embraces. The story oscillates through time and space from narrator Oona's birth on the Irish island of Inis to her present life across the ocean after self-chosen exile, and the return journey to make peace with the past. Tying itself to both Irish folklore and the ancient story of Demeter and Persephone through short interspersed passages of mythic quality, the novel has a haunting, atmospheric feel, while probing familiar themes of womanhood, motherhood, and identity.

Oona grows up on Inis in the 1950s, born during a storm that also sees the birth of the boy Felim to a fiery and free-spirited woman named Aislinn. Oona feels stifled by her traditional and religious mother, who shows her little warmth, and by the traditional gender constructs of the island that allow her brothers free reign while she must stay at home. Aislinn and Felim hold an intense allure for her, and it is her longing for their kind of freedom that sparks her eventual journey to America and then Canada. The present day part of the novel follows Oona's tempestuous relationship with her own daughter Joyce and her return to her homeland of Inis when Joyce runs there to seek answers. While the novel is largely an exploration of Oona's emotional arc, it also confronts social mores and difficult, violent scenes and issues, from the roles of women to rape, AIDS, murder, and homophobia, all harsh realities conveyed through Aitken's almost dreamlike language.

After Oona leaves home, she doesn't long for a reunion with her family (nor does she have one for twenty years), but she finds herself feeling trapped in Canada, where she lives among the trees instead of by the sea. She realizes early on that she is in a different landscape entirely and that while she has previously never seen trees, her mother-in-law has never seen the sea. Oona seeks connection to the water amidst her new forested terrain: "I loved the rush of wind through thousands of leaves, the rattle of branches and thuds of the forest. It reminded me of the never-ending sighs and breath of the sea, the grating suck and slosh of stones along shore." This compelling relationship between the contours of homeland and the self, this search for echoes of what is known, is one of Aitken's particular triumphs in The Island Child.

Oona as a character presents a potential problem to the novel's success, however. She slips into a postpartum depression following Joyce's birth. With the later birth of her beloved son, she is cared for by a nurse named Rose, who quickly becomes her friend but finally accuses her at one point of never asking after others and thinking only of herself. Rose's comment was revelatory to me, as I found myself captivated by Aitken's prose but somehow resistant to the book at the same time. Rose had pinpointed the issue: that while's Oona's story was largely one of seeking independence and identity, her journey seemed largely self-absorbed, and she wasn't necessarily likable. Of course, many a great literary character is not, but in a novel that feels as if the protagonist should have our sympathy, it's a potentially disruptive barrier to overcome. It raises a question for us as readers, to which the answer will certainly be individual: Do you feel like you have to like with or relate to someone in a story to enjoy a book? Is a first-person narrative depleted by a narrator who does not draw on our sympathies or spark a connection? I'd love to hear your perspectives!

Like so many novels, The Island Child is a story about family, heritage, the pastabout ancient stories, about personal pasts, about how they permeate our presents, about how we pave the way to a future. But for what it shares with other books, it also marks a new voice in fiction, and it will be interesting to see where Aitken's voice takes her next. As I closed the book, I did have one happy thought: here in Camden, we never really have to choose between the trees and the sea. We can relish the best of both worlds–and then, too, an infinite world created by books.

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