A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd

A Swift Pure CryIt was interesting to read this one directly on the heels of Mistik Lake; both have main characters who are teenage girls with absent mothers, eldest sisters caring for their younger siblings, and brilliantly realized settings.

The eldest sister in this one is Shell (Michelle) Talent. Her mother is recently dead of some unspecified chronic illness; her father is unemployed and always off collecting for charity, having become fanatically religious after his wife’s death. Shell, meanwhile, has entirely lost her faith in God. The setting is County Cork, in the southwestern corner of Ireland, in the mid-1980s by the songs playing on the radio – but it feels older because of Shell’s family’s isolation and poverty.

Being about a dysfunctional Irish family, the elements are there for a drippy melodrama, but that’s not what this is. Its genre is firmly “beautiful writing about inchoate yearning.” For the first half of the book, the winter and spring, it remains a very quiet story about grief and the struggle to build a life in the midst of it. The plot doesn’t begin to intrude until the next section, the fall; it was at that point that I stopped noticing the beauty of the prose, because it started getting really interesting in the way that made me race through it in order to find out what would happen next! At which point it still, somehow, manages to avoid turning into a drippy melodrama.

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