Emmet and Me is Sara Gethin’s second novel for adults (I review her first, Not Thomas, here). Although exploring dark themes, both novels are narrated by children and she captures their views and understanding of the world with skill and care. Adults often forget how insular a child’s perspective can be, that the lens through which they observe their surroundings is coloured by limited experience and childish interpretations of behaviour and overheard conversation. They have not yet developed the language or emotional intelligence to convey their deeply felt desires or concerns.
This latest story opens in Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers – twelve year old Will and toddler Louis. Their volatile mother has long made it clear she regards her children as nuisances. She blames them for driving her to regular outbursts of anger. On the first weekend of the summer holidays, when she starts flinging crockery at the walls, the youngsters lock themselves in the bathroom to keep safe. They are rescued by their uncle, Jack, who takes them to his grubby lodgings to sleep while their dad tries to sort matters at home. When they return the next day their mother has left. Unable to care for his children alone, their dad decides they must go to his mother in rural Ireland, despite not having spoken to her since he was Claire’s age.
Set in 1966, the remote cottage in Connemara has few modern conveniences. Grandma does her best for the children but, with only one elderly neighbour within walking distance, they must make their own entertainment in the surrounding fields. When the holidays end and there is still no prospect of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are sent to local schools. Run by the Catholic church, these are domains of casually cruel nuns and priests.
It is clear from early in the story that there are key elements of family history that Claire is unaware of. These are gradually revealed to her as the plot progresses – mostly foreshadowed so with few surprises for the reader. There is poverty and tragedy leading to lifelong guilt and resentments. All of this is presented with a poignant clarity and pleasing lack of mawkish embellishment.
The titular Emmet is a boy from one of Ireland’s industrial schools. Claire meets him when she finds a place to hide from the girls in her class during lunchbreak. Claire has always struggled to make friends, longing to be noticed by the popular girls and thereby missing out on chances to befriend others – a thread that is handled particularly well in this tale. In Emmet she finds a child who, like her, has a vivid imagination and appreciation of the escapism to be found in stories. Thrilled by their similarities, she is blind to his obvious suffering and deprivation.
Will has his own issues to deal with at school, his name and provenance making him a magnet for bullies. Being older he has a greater awareness of his parents’ behaviour and is attuned to the background that led to them abandoning their offspring. He is caught between protecting Claire from the truth and advising her when she appears insensitive of issues faced by her peers.
Although certain chapters open with thoughts from an older Claire looking back on this summer, the story told is mostly linear. The writing flows but with an underlying tension – a feeling of impending disaster to which Claire remains oblivious, caught up as she is in her own concerns. Each of the characters is developed well, adding depth to the various plot threads. The way poor and orphaned children are treated by church and state is heartbreaking, especially knowing how factually true this aspect is.
Young Claire’s denouement is a bildungsroman of sorts, although the author avoids the pitfall of making everything too tidy. There is then a postscript that offers a window into the life of the older Claire, a bittersweet consequence of pivotal events recounted.
It is notable that the least likable characters are those presenting what many regard as an admirable veneer – be it beauty or vociferous piety. Grandma understands that the church must be pandered to but recognises its dark underbelly. She does not keep a mirror in her cottage, although it and its occupants are kept clean without fussiness. Claire’s life may at times appear challenging, but not when compared to Emmet’s and those in similar circumstances to his.
I read a great many books that experiment with form and development. Although these can be impressive, it was refreshing to read a story told clearly from beginning to end. That said, the author has included so many thought-provoking themes there is plenty to consider. All have their place and add depth to the evocation of time and place.
A page turner that I nevertheless had to walk away from at times, fearful of what was about to be revealed. The pleasure some take from damaging children for their own gratification remains incomprehensible. The author captures the essence of childhood with aplomb and crafts a tale that cannot fail to move every reader. A deftly rendered, recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Honno Press.
Like you I appreciated having a novel that had a clear trajectory – it’s tiresome that so many novels now feel they have to have multiple timelines. The story of this novel didn’t need any artifices like that, in fact I think that could have been a distraction.