Book Review: The Sun is Open

sun is open

“Around noon, the girl took her
auntie by the hand to the rows
of rose bushes where her father
wasn’t”

“Around noon, the men sent out
for fish and chips and as they sat
eating they watched the lunchtime
news to find out if they had
killed their target”

On the morning of March 6, 1984, Gail McConnell’s father was shot dead outside his home in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. This poetry collection provides an innovative and powerful account of the affect this had on the author in the years that followed. It is built from memories and personal archive material taken from a ‘Dad Box’ she created. Several of the entries are wrapped around direct quotes from items stored therein, including: newspaper clippings, William McConnell’s student diaries, Beryl McConnell’s Statement of Witness.

Each page makes use of white space and indentation to effect. There is no punctuation and few capital letters. This approach serves to focus the reader’s attention. Meaning is clear. The stream of memories and violent imagery is gut-wrenching to consider.

The poems are more factual than political, emotive given context but never mawkish. By drawing on what was reported at the time, a picture of the terrorist mindset sits alongside a young girl growing up in the shadow of the void their actions created. And yet, no judgement is made here. Her father’s perceived character – “a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated” and also “giving prisoners a hard time in Long Kesh” – sits alongside the man who made his young daughter a Wendy House, took her to the beach and created music with his guitar.

In a segregated society sides will be taken, community support provided even for killers.

“the stuff of thrillers wigs washed
in the kitchen sink two pairs
of rubber gloves burnt in the
yard the briefcase tucked up in
the attic sub-machine gun snug
inside clean towels for everyone
the spinner going on third
time that afternoon”

The author’s family are church goers, the child’s social life lived amongst Christian youth groups and protestant schoolfriends. The bible is quoted frequently, the bizarreness of some of its commands and stories quietly highlighted.

The strangeness of being a major news item is remembered, or rebuilt from items kept. In time, the author is cautioned against playing her ‘murder card’ to get her way.

“it’s what dislodges in my body
when I hear balloons pop pop the
birthday party I spent in the
corridor outside the room”

As an adolescent there were small rebellions but also a pulling in of what had been absorbed, the fallout from such a pivotal childhood event. The hurt from such a loss need not be explicitly stated to provide the undercurrent and occasional riptide in choices made. That the author avoids any call for sympathy in her writing – although obviously deserved – is to be commended.

The poems are both beautiful and poignant to read, the language employed all the more compelling for its concise simplicity. Depth is conveyed through what was considered ordinary for a girl in Northern Ireland – how strange the accepted behaviours are to look back on. And yet, it is not necessary to understand life during The Troubles to appreciate the schism caused by the sudden death of a parent. This collection provides a window into a life that perforce continued. It is an arresting and deeply moving read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins.

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