It’s far, far too long since I read and reviewed a book from Rachael English – and I’m really delighted today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of The Paper Bracelet. Published by Headline Review, and already available as an e-book and audiobook, the paperback is published tomorrow (9th July). My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I first discovered Rachael’s wonderful writing way back in 2014 with her debut novel Going Back – you can read my review again here, and you’ll see that I knew I’d found an author I loved. Her writing just got better and better – I also loved Each and Every One later that year (review here), and The American Girl in 2017 (here’s my review). The timing just wasn’t right for me when The Night of the Party came out in 2018 – but I would rather like to go back and read it, as it’s there, waiting on my kindle. Rachael is one of the very best storytellers I know – I always find her books quite impossible to put down – and her emotional touch just perfect. And my goodness, she’s excelled herself with this one – and her writing is better than ever…
Inspired by heartrending real events, the gripping new novel from the No. 1 bestselling author about a former nurse in an Irish mother and baby home who reunites the mothers with the babies they were forced to give up years ago.
Every baby’s bracelet held a mother’s secret…
For almost fifty years, Katie has kept a box of secrets.
It dates from her time working as a nurse in a west of Ireland mother and baby home, and contains a notebook with details of the babies and young women she met there. It also holds many of the babies’ identity bracelets.
Following the death of her husband, Katie makes a decision she has long kept at bay. She posts a message on an internet forum, knowing that the information she possesses could help reunite adopted people with their birth mothers.
Soon, the replies are rolling in, and Katie encounters success, failure, heartache and joy as she finds herself in the role of part-detective, part-counsellor – chasing down leads, piecing together stories, and returning many of the bracelets to their original owners.
But there is one bracelet in the box that holds the key to a story that may never be told…
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the reality of the mother and baby homes isn’t something from dim and distant history – I know they were still very much around in the UK when I was well into my twenties (late 70s/early 80s?). I do think though that the Irish cultural context made them a considerably harsher regime – the forced labour, the virtual imprisonment, that whole concept of “sin”, the inadequacies of the medical support available and the cruel separation of mothers from their children. And I’d guess many of us have shed tears over the accounts of the graveyards with the tiny unidentified graves… I’ll admit I was rather expecting the focus of this book to be on that sad catalogue of injustice and cruelty.
Instead, the way it’s handled made it something quite different, and it was an approach I really enjoyed. In the present day, we meet Katie – recently widowed, now in her seventies – who was a nurse for a while, in the 1970s, at the mother and baby home at Carigbrack. While there, she assembled a box of all the newborn children’s paper bracelets, and kept a notebook tracking what happened to them: with the luxury of a little time and breathing space, and helped by her niece Beth who has the IT skills she lacks, she makes it her mission to reunite the bracelets with those now-adult children, while doing whatever she can to help reconnect them with their birth mothers. But it’s also a “then and now” story – threaded through Katie’s story is the day-to-day life of Patricia, one of the young mothers-to-be, both her personal story and that of others subjected to life at the home.
The structure works exceptionally well. Katie’s mission, both its successes and failures, provide a wonderful story filled with well-drawn characters, each with their own lives and background stories that provide real texture and interest. Patricia’s story is harrowing and emotional, and all that cruelty and injustice might have been too much to take had it all been told as an end-to-end story – by dipping in, I think it might just have a greater impact, but I did rather welcome the opportunity to look away from time to time.
There was so much about this book I really enjoyed – the way the emotional content was handled, the layering of the stories, the detective work that Katie and Beth only initiate at first but then get increasingly involved in supporting, and the whole examination of the dynamics of family both in the 70s and in the present day. And all the time, as you read, there’s that niggling discomfort that this isn’t a work of pure fiction – although the facts were only inspired by the history, the experiences were all too real.
Am I making it all sound a bit sombre and depressing? It really isn’t – there’s plenty of lightness in Katie and Beth’s story, more than enough opportunities to smile and laugh a little, and some moments of absolute joy when their efforts are successful. In fact, the only thing about this book I’m still not entirely sure about is its ending – I’ll admit it didn’t entirely work for me, maybe just a little bit too tidy, but you might well feel entirely differently.
I found the book a totally compelling read – and it’s one I’d most certainly recommend to others.
About the author
Rachael English is a bestselling novelist and presenter on Ireland’s most popular radio show, Morning Ireland. During more than twenty years as a journalist, she has worked on most of RTÉ Radio’s leading current affairs programmes, covering a huge range of national and international stories.