A Swift Pure Cry
David Fickling Books
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"A masterful debut."
Siobhan Dowd brings a fresh eye and a lilting cadence to the otherwise sadly familiar territory of Irish dysfunction in her young-adult novel, A Swift Pure Cry. While its subject matter is well trod in Irish poetry, literature and memoir, this bleak tale of the poor and ignorant in late-20th century Ireland with its overtones of church scandal, alcoholism, family crisis and sturdy survivalism, still weaves a mystical spell of hope in Dowd’s capable hands.
Shell Talent, a 15 year-old-girl with little to call her own, least of all a future, struggles to shepherd her younger siblings through the dark days in the year after their mother’s death. Their father has all but abandoned them, spending his days begging under the guise of collecting for the Church’s charities and drinking most of it away.
“The willow leaves blew ghost-white in the wind. The red hawthorne berries dropped in the frost. Shell turned sixteen. She told Dad one day she’d finished with school; he nodded, as if he understood.”
Under the weight of her burdens, Shell has lost her faith. Although she—and the rest of their poor, small village by the sea—still lives life according to the rhythms of the Church with its schedule of pealing bells echoing through the streets as its rituals and symbols echo through the story line. When a young priest named Father Rose comes to the village, Shell finds her faith rekindled even as the fabric of her family life unravels.
“The air around him vibrated with shining picture bubbles. Shell could hear the caged birds under the arches, the clink of Roman coins…The images and sounds cascaded out from the pulpit, hanging in the air, turning over like angels in the spring light.”
Although Father Rose is sensitive to the Talent family’s obvious disintegration, he is encouraged by his superior not to interfere in family life in the insular village lest he be tainted by an erroneous whiff of scandal. Hence, Shell has no one to turn to when she finds herself in trouble, and scandal does indeed come to Coolbar village as Shell wrestles with her fate.
Dowd creates Shell’s interior life with as much mastery as she describes the exterior. With little ornamentation, Dowd’s spare language quite beautifully evokes the poignancy of a needlessly shattered adolescence.
“Shell got to her feet. She had her hands over her ears. She was the bird caught by the sparrowhawk. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. She stood in the room of frosted glass and silently screeched… Then the dead arose and appeared unto many. Two pale spots of light flickered on the peeling wall, hovering. The souls of the departed. … As they bobbed on the corner of her vision, she knew she was safe. Their angel wings shone around her.”
While this is depressingly realistic material, Dowd’s teenage protagonist will surely hold both teen and adult readers in her sway. Shell’s steadfast determination to hold on to the truth even when beaten down by hostile indifference or badgered by overeager authority figures is exactly the sort of shining light that brings redemption and hope to the all-too-common tragedies of A Pure Swift Cry–a masterful debut.
Reviewer: Candelora Versace