"...stories birling ..."
About a month ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Anne Doughty at her book launch. I had just returned from a hospital run from with my dad, but I was determined to drive straight back to Belfast so that I could catch a glimpse of the lady behind fourteen published novels.
Having experienced the overwhelming highs and lows of writing, I was curious to see what a novelist who had written fourteen novels looked like. I’ve written three and I figure that if I keep writing at the same pace, I’ll end up introverted, overweight, crippled and insane by the time I’m 41...I'm 40.
And so it was a relief to see before me a slender lady who breezed through the social necessities of a book launch; body and mind in tact.
Born on the cusp of the Second World War, Anne Doughty has lived through events that I would need to research for years in order to bring to life in novels, and as I listened to Anne read from her latest novel, The Blacksmith’s Wife, I couldn’t help but wonder how this author, who probably began her writing career with a typewriter, copes with the maddening world of social media that is now so ingrained in the daily circus of promotion. Gracefully, but with the odd roll of the eye, I suspect.
The Blacksmith’s Wife, an historical novel set amid the Great Famine in Armagh, is as generous as the Quaker traditions it describes, but it is not a novel that will satiate indulgent cravings for a gruesome close up of Ireland’s great tragedy. The narrative of wistful prose and rich Ulster-Scots dialect whispers, ‘Take your time and enjoy each moment,’ and the characters reveal just enough for the imagination to understand what is unsaid. Each detail of the historical period is recorded with accuracy, each bite of cake and mouthful of porridge a pertinent warning of the looming consequences of crop failure. The exploration of food in A Blacksmith’s wife reminded me of a poignant scene in the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace. In it, a starving prisoner is given a piece of bread. He does not grab the bread and ravish it: he looks at it, softly sprinkles salt on it and slowly savours it crumb by crumb.
As I read The Blacksmith’s Wife, I was transported to a forgotten episode in my own life. Throughout my first year at Queen’s University, I volunteered at the Ulster Museum. I worked for the resident historian, who tasked me with researching the famine in counties Londonderry and Antrim. Each Wednesday afternoon, I went against the tide of students on their way to the Student Union bar, and took up residence in the library. As I trawled through details on the death and disease of paupers, doctors and philanthropists in weighty tomes of parliamentary papers and workhouse reports, I tried hard to imagine what my ancestors’ families had suffered. The Blacksmith’s Wife certainly painted a picture of the facts that I had once uncovered, albeit in different counties.
However, I wasn’t just looking for a good novel. As I opened the beautiful cover of The Blacksmith’s Wife, I hoped that some lessons from an experienced novelist would be revealed, and I wasn’t disappointed.
What I learned is that the reader is capable of filling the gaps and that it is not necessary to reveal all. I was content not to see the close up stills of disease and starvation, but I will confess that I did want to know more about Sarah’s thoughts and frustrations as she dealt with the great dilemma of her happiness being hitched to the death of another.
A few weeks ago, I lifted my signed hardback of The Blacksmith’s Wife with the urgency of one accustomed to the fast consumerism of modern society. Halfway through, I felt compelled to slow down, to look at the novel, to softly sprinkle salt on it and to slowly savour it crumb by crumb.
And I wonder about that time I spent in the library and its purpose. Perhaps there is an historical novel within me that might benefit from knowledge dusted from an elaborate script of workhouse records in Ireland in 1846. So little is commonly known of the famine in Ulster and a seed for historical fiction has now been firmly planted, thanks to Anne.
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street. Click the links below to learn more:
A Belfast Tale: Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this beautiful transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street: A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
Scene from Snugville Street
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The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
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The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
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Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
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