The Island Child, by Molly Aitken is a painful and heart-breaking story of motherhood, womandhood, grief and identity.
Synopsis: Oona was born on the Island of Inis, a place steeped in superstition, folk-lore and religion, where men go out to sea in order to bring home food while the women stay home to cook, clean and raise their children. On a small island where everybody knows each other, distrust and rumours spread quickly and conformity is expected.
Twenty years ago, Oona left the island, her home, her prison, in an attempt to be free and live her life. However, she soon realises that she cannot put the island behind her as it has a way of catching up with you.
Oona’s life as a wife and mother is still haunted by the ways of the island and she finds herself struggling with the trauma of her childhood.
Follow Oona’s story as an adult, and as a child who watches as the ugly and betraying nature of the island reveals itself to her.
Before we get into the actual review I wanted to highlight some important thoughts I had! Firstly, this is a hard hitting book – much darker and painful than I originally expected. Normally, I leave the Content Warnings (may be slightly spoilery but they’re important) until the end of the post but I will include them here this time around so this book includes: Home Abortion (pretty graphic), Abuse, Trauma, Violence, Rape (in moderate detail, not overly graphic, of a minor), Death (adult and infant), Induced shame for identity (Gay character-shamed via religion), Implied/assumed fatal AIDS, Possible PTSD/Possible Postnatal Depression (not explicitly stated could be General Depression), Suicide (not graphic, mention only). I am very sorry if I missed any-I have tried to cover anything that may affect any readers. Most of these are mention only or not very graphic but are still present in the book.
This is a stunning novel, extraordinarily well written, and it deals with some important themes but it is a difficult novel, hard-hitting and emotional, it is heart-breaking overall.
— Beautiful And Vivid —
The Writing Style And Narrative. Molly Aitken has a very unique writing style, it is both incredibly direct but also beautiful and vivid. The sentences themself are often short and to the point, unless describing the beauty of nature or other significant scenes and descriptions making the book easy to read and follow throughout.
The dual narrative (past and present/ child and adult Oona) works very well, while the begininning of the novel is a little slow, the dual narrative allows the pace to pick up and maintain a good momentum through interest and suspense. The little mysteries created throughout the novel from why Oona’s daughter is mad at her to who committed other acts (vague to avoid spoilers!) creates another level to the story that keeps you interested as you want to see the resolution.
Interestingly enough this story is written in the first person narrative too which adds a strong emotional element to the events that occur. Oona is at the centre of a lot of the traumatic events whether they happen to her or to those she cares for, as a result we see her reaction to each event and it is truly harrowing. The perspective was a great choice for this particular novel and it created a significant amount of pathos that makes you feel connected to the story.
I thoroughy enjoyed the writing style and narrative choice for The Island Child and found it made for an amazing debut novel.
— Original And Heart-Breaking —
The Plot. The Island Child is a highly original and heart-breaking story with a lot of important themes. The plot explores womanhood, particularly on the island where the women stay at home and are obligated to have children and please their husbands. However, it also explores motherhood, the positive side of raising the sons and other island children, but also the negative side, the side where you are constantly worrying about your child, particularly the daughters, and the darker side where you feel you should never have been a mother. It is a difficult topic that is dealt with in multiple different ways throughout the story and is incredibly important.
The story also deals with abuse, trauma, identity and freedom. The book takes a harsh look at religion, specifically the negative aspect of Christianity, and how it can affect individuals and their identity. In particular it examines how some extreme or orthodox religious leaders can instil shame into you even though you have nothing to be ashamed of, this is evident for a character who is gay but feels disguted about it as they are convinced it is wrong by the Priest. However, it also looks at freedom and how you can move on from this and start accepting yourself once you are free from the community that controlled you.
Freedom is also a large part of the story for Oona who become free from the prison of the island, but struggles to be entirely free from the trauma it caused.
The story also edeals with different forms of abuse and violence which can be harrowing and difficult.
The pacing, after the first chapter or so, picks up quite nicely andis easily maintained. The mystery and suspense woven into the plot keeps you interested, and the multiple themes and elements are used wonderfully to keep you hooked. Overall, the elements of the story tie togther very well and as the pieces fall in to place and the wider picture is revealed you are left with a sense of melancholy that is oddly satisfying.
I did have one issue with the plot and the ending regarding the character who comminted the sexual assault. Firstly, it didn’t feel quite right to me, while the arc did have a resounding effect on the story the actual assault seemed mindless, maybe because of who did it or the reason they gave, either way I couldn’t quite get it (perhaps the mindlessness was the point). But, I accept it had a key part in the novel overall. The ending with this character also didn’t sit right with me and I cannot place why.
The ending with Oona’s family was sad and a little sweet, it ended on a melancholic note, not quite ‘finished’ or fixed but the journey to fixing the problems and accepting themselves has begun and it was perfect.
— Complex And Realistic —
The Characters. Each of the characters Aitken has created are complex and realistic. They are unique and individual from one and other and they are flawed making them easier to connect with.
Oona. The main character. Oona as a child is incredibly fierce and determined, she wants to go to sea like her brothers and be free from the confines of the house and the cruel hand of her mother. Oona finds herself drawn to Felim, a young boy her age born on the same stormy night that she was, despite her mothers stern warnings that she was to stay away from him and his mother. However, Oona is also relatively naive at times and can be self centred resulting in her behaving irrationally or unfairly.
Adult Oona is equally determined to be free and rid of her past but she is more burdened, traumatised by her time on the island, struggling with her daughter and marriage. However, she is still headstrong and stubborn with a self-centred streak. These traits and flaws make her a very interesting character to read about, and to read from her perspective
Pat. Oona’s husband is quiet, docile, quick to act and supportive. He adores his daughter and Oona but is too selfless at times. He is desperate to hold his family together and want’s nothing more than a happy life, he is understanding of Oona’s trauma and troubles and tries to be supportive. His character is interesting as we do not see his internal dialogue so while he is supportive and likely struggling we see only his attempts to save and fix things and not his suffering. His character is charming and sweet overall.
Felim. The young boy born on the same night as Oona, he has an odd allure to him. He is stubborn, forceful and determined, but also odd, prone to outbursts. Overall, his character appears to be kind and trying to fit in, but he is an outsider who will never be trusted. I didn’t like him though, his character was a little unsettling at times and very aloof.
Other significant characters include; Oona’s mother – a questionable and conformative woman with regard for religion and little for her daughter, father and two brothers (specifically Enda), Jonjoe (forgive me if this is incorrect I am writing without my kindle to hand unfortunately!) and Oona’s daughter and aunt. Everyone of these characters are in-depth and well crafted and inspire unique feelings towards them.
— Poignant And Powerful —
Overall. The Island Child, by Molly Aitken is a poignant and powerful debut novel that dives into some painful and heart-breaking themes with an underlying beautiful melancholy.
Definitely one I would recommend to anyone who enjoys general ficiton with hard-hitting themes and Irish folk-lore/superstitions weaved in.
*I received an eARC of #TheIslandChild by Molly Aitken from #Netgalley #Canongatebooks @canongatebooks in exchange for an honest review.*