This book was recommended to me by a dear friend with whom I often exchange reading ideas. Actually, she was staying with me as she was finishing this and I watched as she gasped, sighed and looked altogether satisfied with what she was reading, barely able to put the novel down. She didn’t need many words to persuade me to enjoy this book as well.
When I first started reading this tale, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Based on true stories of “fasting girls” from history, those who refused food and remained alive, claiming it was God’s work, this is a about an eleven-year old, clever and very sweet Irish girl who, though not eating for months, remains alive, claiming to be nourished by God. A British nurse, Lib, along with a Catholic nun, is sent to remain by her bedside for a fortnight to see whether or not the girl is fraudulent or a miracle. The story of what happens is told through Lib’s eyes.
To be sure (couldn’t resist), the writing was lovely, lyrical, and it was easy to be swept away by vivid descriptions of the Irish midlands, the brusqueness and almost fanatical devotion of the locals and the resistance to the British woman’s presence among them and the suspicion she brings in her wake.
Now that I have finished the book, it’s hard to remember why I felt that way. I think it might have been the religiosity underpinning the tale, the blind faith and the painful accuracy with which this was painted. It is frustrating indeed. Though, having said that, the wonderful superstition and pagan practices that were still extant in this period were marvellously realised. The reader sees the family, the wee girl at the heart, and the neighbours and local authorities who believe this child is God’s proof on earth, and their desperate need for God to be among them. Even the reporters sent to cover the story, err on the side of believing – with one exception, whom Lib befriends. Even so, the scope – in terms of setting – of the book is narrow. Almost all the scenes take place in the tiny, bare cottage of the family, the small hotel room of the nurse, or upon the wild bogs. There’s a sense of suffocation, especially as the child begins to become frail and weak and everyone remains in almost wilful denial about what’s happening.
As Lib’s frustration and confusion about what’s happening grows (is it a hoax or real?), she is uncertain who to turn to – is the nun is an enemy or friend? Is the reporter, who appears to share her cynicism to be trusted or is he just after a scoop?
The further I went into the narrative, the harder I found to leave until, like my girlfriend, I was gasping, sighing and unable to tear myself away.
Superbly written and, I realise, paced, this is a suspenseful, cloying yet stunning tale of faith, stubbornness, necessity, trust and betrayal.