Review – Going Back by Rachael English

By | August 12, 2014

How do you know where you belong?

In June 1988, Elizabeth Kelly’s parents think she belongs at home in Ireland. Her boyfriend is certain of it. Unwilling to settle down just yet, she decides to spend the summer in Boston with her college friends. But the next four months change all of them, especially Elizabeth. Quiet and dutiful at home, she surprises herself and everyone else by falling for Danny Esposito, a restless charmer with a troublesome family.

More than 20 years later with opportunities in Ireland scarce once again, a new generation looks to America, awakening memories of a golden summer for their parents. When a crisis occurs, Elizabeth returns to Boston where she is drawn back into the life she once lived. But will she be able to reconcile the dreams of her 20-year-old self with the woman she has become?

After seeming to read a large number of books set during the First World War, I now seem to be picking up a sequence of books set in the 1980s…but the 1980s are only part of this very accomplished debut novel, with the story split between then and the present day. 
Elizabeth Kelly and her friends are spending their summer in Boston while awaiting the results of their finals – it’s always understood that they will return to Ireland to pick up their lives, but this is their opportunity to live a little, earn some money, live different lives for a while. Despite her boyfriend Liam at home, and despite the fact that she’s always the sensible one, Elizabeth meets Danny – so very different and exciting – and their love affair unfolds.  But it was always going to come to an end, and when it happens it does so very suddenly.
Twenty years later, Elizabeth’s daughter Janey is in Boston – she has a nice steady boyfriend in Aidan (nicknamed Hawaii because of the way he greets people) and a job in Faneuil Hall selling jewellery to keep her ticking over, but disaster strikes when she’s suddenly taken ill and ends up in hospital. So Elizabeth returns to Boston to be with her, and decides that enough time has passed that she should look up Danny, see how his life has panned out.
This was a lovely read, packed with emotion, very moving and beautifully written: it’s a story that will enchant you and break your heart.  I enjoyed its Irishness – the dialogue is quite wonderful, full of those statements borrowed from Irish parents that make perfect sense but also make no sense at all.  In the first part, the 80s are perfectly evoked – the book is full of the music and the fashions, underpinned by the different moral standards and youthful expectations. There’s a real depth of detail that leaves you familiar with the streets of Boston and the comings and goings of the young Irish community – I loved the sunbathing on the apartment roof, the leaving of furniture on the streets as one group left and another arrived, the new arrivals cramming into the floor-space.  All the characters are well drawn, and the friendships (and the times when the friendships aren’t so good) perfectly described – and that makes it all the more fascinating when we discover what has happened to them all when we rejoin them 20 years later.  
I have only one very tiny complaint, and it’s certainly nothing to do with the novel. On the cover of my copy is a statement from Irish World – “sure to be compared to Cecelia Ahern”.  I’m sorry but I really can’t see that comparison at all – Rachael English has a style all of her own, drawing on everything she’s learned from her journalistic background, very different from Ms Ahern, and a style that I’m really looking forward immensely to seeing developed further in her next book. 
Going Back was published by Orion on 22 May, and is available in all formats. My thanks to the author, Rachael English, for my personal copy.

Rachael English is a presenter on Ireland’s most popular radio programme, Morning Ireland.  She lives in Dublin, but was born in England and grew up in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. Her first novel, Going Back, was shortlisted for the most-promising newcomer award at the 2013 Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards. Her second book, Each And Every One, will be published in September 2014.  Rachael has a Facebook page, and can also be followed on Twitter. 

(For another review of this excellent novel, please do have a look at Anne’s review on Random Things Through My Letterbox – and while you’re there, why not look around a little?)