May 1959. From one side of St. Brigid’s Island, the mountains of Connemara can be glimpsed on the distant mainland; from the other, the Atlantic stretches as far as the eye can see. This remote settlement, without electricity or even a harbor, has scarcely altered since its namesake saint set up a convent of stone huts centuries ago. Those who live there, including sisters Rose and Emer, are hardy and resourceful, dependent on the sea and each other for survival. Despite the island’s natural beauty, it is a place that people move away from, not to—until an outspoken American, also named Brigid, arrives to claim her late uncle’s cottage.
Brigid has come for more than an inheritance. She’s seeking a secret holy well that’s rumored to grant miracles. Emer, as scarred and wary as Rose is friendly and beautiful, has good reason to believe in inexplicable powers. Despite her own strange abilities—or perhaps because of them—Emer fears that she won’t be able to save her young son, Niall, from a growing threat. Yet Brigid has a gift too, even more remarkable than Emer’s. As months pass and Brigid carves out a place on the island and in the sisters’ lives, a complicated web of betrayal, fear, and desire culminates in one shocking night that will change the island, and its inhabitants, forever.
The Stolen Child is a powerful example of how magic realism can give pyschological depth to a work. The small island, cut off for weeks from the mainland by the sea, is a world in itself. Or should I say two worlds because the two central characters, Emer and Brigid, are in different ways touched by that other world of Irish myth - the world of the fairy, the "Good People" as they are called. But the Good People are far from good, they are a sinister presence feared by the Islanders and in particular by Emer who is terrified by the belief that the fairies will steal her son when he gets to the age of seven. Brigid on the other hand is looking for the healing waters of St Brigid's well, which will grant her the child that fate has denied her. St Brigid of course was/is herself an ambiguous figure, a pagan goddess before she was made a saint, so the modern Brigid is in some ways seeking a blessing from the fairies. The well she is seeking is as much an entrance into the underworld as was the beehive that turned on Emer, filling her with poison.
There are many themes in this book, too many perhaps, but for me the overriding one was that of motherhood. The island has lost many of its men to the mainland or foreign shores and on occasion to the cruel sea. St Brigid's Island is an island of women without a future and so the bearing of children is particularly symbolic. In the two sisters we see very different mothers. Rose is easy-going in her fecundity, bearing her handsome husband a succession of twins. Emer has the one son, Niall, whom she watches over obsessively. Then there is Brigid, who has had a succession of pregnancies all of which have resulted in the loss of the baby. Brigid's desperation for a child drives her to the island from which her mother had been driven, to seduce the emotionally wounded Emer and then cruelly push her away, thus lighting a touchpaper for the explosive final chapters.
Lisa Carey has said that she was inspired in part by a documentary Inishark: Death of an Island (Inis Airc: Bas Oileain), which you can view on Youtube. Here is the trailer on IMDb.
Carey does a wonderful job of evoking the bleak beauty of the island, the loneliness and closeness of its community. Her writing about the place is quite intoxicating and haunting and I was not surprised that she has found herself visiting and revisiting Inisboffin, just over the channel from Inishark. I was less taken by the sections in the book where we learn Brigid's backstory in America, just as I was less taken with her as character. I was fascinated by Emer, who is a wonderful character. She should be unappealing, given the way she can suck joy out of everyone she touches (everyone except for Brigid and Rose). But her love for her son and her desperate desire to protect him ring so true to this mother of a boy.
A powerful piece of magic realism, not suited to those who like their books to shy away from dark subjects.
I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.