I’m really so delighted today to be helping launch the blog tour for Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, and to share my publication day review. Published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press, it’s now available for kindle via Amazon, and also in paperback from a range of major retailers or through your favourite local independent bookshop, by ordering via Bookshop.org or Amazon, or direct from the publishers. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.
I’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Back in 2017, when I read Sara’s first book for adults, Not Thomas, I declared it “one of the most stunning books I’ve read this year”. That was actually quite restrained for me – I really should have added “or any other year”, because I can still remember every small detail, hear Tomos’ voice, and remember the book’s profound emotional impact. You can read my review again here – and when I nominated the book for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, I really didn’t realise quite what I was starting. It sadly didn’t win, but did make it to the final selection as I’d so hoped it would – and now a few years have passed, I think Sara might just have forgiven me for helping give both her and the book the attention they so deserved.
So I was really looking forward to this one, very much hoping that it would live up to my high expectations… and then I spotted the wonderful pre-publication review from Mairéad Hearne at Swirl and Thread (you can read it here), a blogger friend whose reviews I always trust, and immediately knew all would be well…
Summer 1966: When her father comes home with lipstick on his collar, ten-year-old Claire’s life is turned upside down. Her furious mother leaves the family and heads to London, and Claire and her brothers are packed off to Ireland, to their reclusive grandmother at her tiny cottage on the beautifully bleak coast of Connemara.
A misfit among her new classmates, Claire finds it hard to make friends until she happens across a boy her own age from the school next door. He lives at the local orphanage, a notoriously harsh place. Amidst half-truths, lies and haunting family secrets, Claire forms a forbidden friendship with Emmet ‒ a bond that will change both their lives forever.
When ten year old Claire’s mother reaches the end of her tether with her errant husband, throwing the family crockery at him before leaving for London, it’s the beginning of a period of major change for her, 12 year old brother Will and toddler Louis. Her uncle takes them from Cardiff to stay for a while with their grandmother in Connemara – an entirely different life from the one they’re used to, a subsistence level existence with no television, no bathroom, chores to complete, young Louis tethered to the leg of the kitchen table for his own safety with his only toy a block of wood, and their grandmother particularly cold and forbidding. And then there’s the Irish dimension – Will’s name becomes Patrick because of the historical connotations, and they soon discover their grandmother’s opposition to anything connected with the Church. The affection does deepen with time, rather to the surprise of them all – but when the uniforms arrive for the start of a new school term, it becomes clear that the stay is going to be considerably longer than they expected.
We follow Claire to school – and if making friends was a struggle for her back in Cardiff, it proves to be far more complicated and difficult under the more oppressive regime of the nuns who teach them. Struggling to fit in, she rejects the approaches of the friendly “House girls”, equally ostracised by her classmates for reasons that only become clear much later – and she yearns to be close to blonde-haired blue-eyed and beautiful Iseult, surrounded by her acolytes and excelling at every lesson. She finds a welcome refuge from her misery – a hidden corner of the playground – where she comes across Emmet, a boy of a similar age from the school next door, with whom she becomes firm friends. He tells her about his life, how his mother is temporarily absent but due to return married to a millionaire, and thrills her with stories about his horse Buddy – with the promise of taking her to visit, while she hands over apple cores and sandwich crusts as treats for him to pass on – made all the more fascinating to her because of her passion for Black Beauty, her most treasured book. His real life, of course, proves to be very different – but that’s clear to the reader a good while before it becomes evident to Claire.
And as well as the friendship between them, we become increasingly aware of undercurrents to the family relationships, the echoes of the past slowly revealed, and the whole slice of recent Irish history that underpins it all. While I’m familiar with the Magdalene laundries, I’m ashamed to admit that I knew little about the Industrial Schools – run by religious orders and set up to care for neglected, orphaned and abandoned children, when instead the children in their care suffered both appalling neglect and systematic and sustained physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
But that’s enough of the story – you can discover it in the way I did, and I promise you will find it every bit as compelling and equally heartbreaking. Instead I’d like to say more about the writing – the narrative is largely linear, other than the occasional intervention from the adult Claire, making it clear why she needs to share her story. The voice throughout is that of a very real ten year old, and hers is the lens through which the story unfolds – and that voice never wavers, clear and consistent throughout, her naivety entirely believable, and I have to say that I found it a remarkable piece of writing. Like Thomas before her, Claire is oblivious to so much, the layers beneath the story, the darkness – the reader is often a few steps ahead and can see quite clearly – entirely caught up in her enjoyment of her new friendship, her excitement over the school short story competition, her love of horses and her desperate desire to see Buddy. That child’s eye view often gives the story a surprising lightness – there is far more to smile about in this book than you might ever expect, even quite a few opportunities to laugh – lifting that feeling of impending doom that never entirely leaves you. And there’s a great deal of beauty too – the glorious Connemara landscape so vividly recreated.
I’m finding it far more difficult than I should to say that I entirely loved this book – its characters, every twist and turn of the story, the way it was told, but most of all the way it made me feel. There isn’t a neat ending, and that felt entirely right – but I thought the postscript, revisiting the adult Claire, was perfectly judged and an uplifting note to bring a close to a story that I found intensely moving. This is a book no-one should miss – I loved it, I’ll never forget it, and I recommend it very highly.
About the author
Sara Gethin grew up in Llanelli. She has a degree in Religion and Ethics in Western Thought and worked as a primary school teacher in Carmarthenshire and Berkshire. Writing as Wendy White, she has had four children’s books published, and the first of these won the Tir nan-Og Award in 2014. Her debut novel, Not Thomas, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize and The Waverton Good Read Award. While West Wales is still home, Sara spends much of her time in Ireland. Emmet and Me is her second novel for adults.