rating: 5 of 5 stars
It feels strange to tag a book set during the year of my birth as “historical fiction,” but this is a story where the specific time and place are crucial to the story. It’s not one of those books set during the recent past just for cultural references or because the author was a teen at the time. On the other hand, though, the story feels contemporary, except for the details of the political situation and the technology involved in analyzing the body of the girl found in the bog.
I didn’t have high hopes for this book, and I almost didn’t pick it up because of how much I disliked A Swift Pure Cry. But in every place where that book let me down, this one came through. Where the drama in that one felt over the top, this one felt appropriate. Where the plot twists were predictable and annoying in the first book, they were startling and crucial in this one. At one point the tension was so high that I couldn’t bear to open the book at work (knowing I’d either be unable to put it down or would burst into tears), but when I finally had a chance to sit down with it, along came a twist that broke the tension in such a perfect way that I almost cried for joy. Other twists were heartbreaking, of course, and one I should have seen coming because the clues were everywhere. The romantic subplot also helped break up some of the tension while still feeling realistic.
There’s a lot going on in the story – family drama, romance, archeology, hunger strikes, political tensions, the stress of exams, friendships – but each part of the story felt essential to the rest, and each character felt like a living, breathing person. In fact, whenever I wasn’t reading, the characters were living in my head so vividly that I was agonizing over their futures.
The story walks a fine line in terms of the political situation – and I found myself wondering how much the average American teen would know about what was going on in Northern Ireland during the eighties. I never really understood the situation, and I’d never heard of the hunger strikers, until a class I took while studying in London (and I almost found myself wishing for my notes while reading). Dowd’s note at the end gives a bit of information, and readers who are drawn into the story will probably end up wanting to read more. I’m unsure about how important it would be to know exactly what was going on, historically. Confusion might push some readers away, but the tension is so well played that it almost might not matter if you know all the details.
I could keep gushing, and I’ve barely mentioned Mel, the girl found in the bog, and how her story ties into Fergus’ story, or how it’s a fantastic coming of age story, or the sense of place that’s so palpable – in other words, it was fantastic for when you’re in the mood for a gripping story. Just be careful about reading it at work.