When Michael Connolly was a child in the 1970s, his mother told him about all the things that happened to her in that place. All that the nuns had done. The doctors encouraged her to talk, and talk she did. She even tried to tell the public. She wrote letters to the newspapers. She made signs and picketed Mass. The good pious parishioners silenced her. The doctors told her she was delusional. Her husband didn’t post her letters. Her son didn’t believe her.
Three decades later, still caught in the guilt from that time, Michael sits watching the news about the mother and baby homes unfolding, and realises, with his mother long gone, that she had been telling the truth all those years ago. Fallen is a stark and beautifully written account of the impact on one family of a shameful chapter in modern Irish history.
Many thanks to Kevin at Bluemoose for sending me a proof copy of Fallen in exchange for an honest review. I have loved everything I’ve read from this wonderful indie publisher, which always makes me ever so slightly nervous, as it sets a very high standard!
Luckily, Mel O’Doherty’s novel is yet another triumph. I could tell from the opening pages that the quality of the prose was outstanding, and the story that unfolds is an incredibly powerful one. This is a heart-breaking book: the horror of what Elaine goes through, and the effect it has on her family, makes for difficult reading at times. It is absolutely shocking to read about what went on in the mother and baby homes, even more so because the structure of the novel cleverly moves backwards in time as well as forwards, so that we are completely emotionally invested in Elaine by the time we see the full, nightmarish reality of the home.
What struck me most about this book is that it is not only an expose of the criminal practices that went on, but it is also a deep exploration of shame and guilt. The fact that Michael and his father, who both love Elaine deeply, betray her by not believing her at the time is so poignant, and the traumatic results for Michael in particular are explored with nuance and subtlety. He can’t simply join in the outcry at the discovery of what really went on – because he had already been told. It’s so tragic and complex and really quite devastating. That moment when the penny drops, when Michael realises what we, as readers, already know – that Elaine wasn’t delusional, that it all happened as she said – is one of the most powerful, affecting moments I’ve read in a novel this year.
By refusing to use the reality of the situation as a ‘plot twist’ for the readers, and instead having us be aware before Michael is that Elaine is telling the truth, O’Doherty avoids ‘shock factor’ tricks and allows for a much more complicated psychological exploration of the effects of trauma on both Elaine and her son. There are also plenty of wonderful characters – John, Michael’s eccentric friend, and Jill, whom Michael admires from afar, both inject some much-needed levity into proceedings, while also providing another perspective on themes such as finding your own path and writing your own story.
Fallen is strikingly original, but it does have shades of other brilliant books I have read. I was reminded of two of my favourite books of last year: The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen, and The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (also published by Bluemoose). If you loved either of these books, then Fallen will be for you. It is a tough read in terms of its subject matter, but the way it is written and structured is exquisite, and I highly recommend this profound, intelligent, beautiful book.