When The Sandstone City, by Elaine Canning, was offered to me for review I expected it to be just the sort of story I enjoy. The author lived and was educated in Belfast, as I was, before moving away to pursue a life and career elsewhere. This background led me to believe she would understand her subject matter, that she would appreciate and be capable of articulating the guilt instilled by an Irish family on those who dare to flee the nest. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how disturbing I would find the supernatural elements of her debut. The family featured are capable of physically following their offspring from beyond the grave.
The story opens in an inner city estate house in contemporary Belfast. Eighty-eight year old Michael Doherty has recently died and his family are preparing to bury him. In the scenario imagined, the dead man can hear what is being said about him as his body lies in the open coffin, family and neighbours passing through to pay their respects. He is particularly concerned about his youngest grandchild, Sarah, who is using the religious period of Lent as an excuse to starve herself in an attempt to ward of guilt. She has not shared with anyone the source of her pain, although the reader is made aware it is to do with a young man in Spain who may or may not be dead, something for which she blames herself.
Sarah had moved to Spain for study and work. She was based in Salamanca, a city that held memories for her grandfather, ones he has never shared with his family. His wife, Annie, was aware that before they met he had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Michael had struggled to settle during their early years of marriage, eventually leaving her with their young children to work away from home. When he eventually returned she accepted his past with few questions, although did banish him to a separate bedroom.
Despite this, the family are portrayed as close – to each other and to their neighbours in the estate. When Sarah moves away she is expected to ring home regularly as well as returning for visits. She seems to accept this, telling small lies in her updates when she wishes to keep aspects of her new life private. Despite being dead, Michael sees that she is now hurting and wants to help. He is granted permission to call up ghosts from his past and haunt her into investigating the secrets he kept, something he believes will encourage her to confront whatever it is she is avoiding.
The unfolding story sees Sarah first frightened and confused by the messengers but then curious about what is being revealed about her grandfather. Despite this curiosity, she appears reluctant to learn anything about his past that could change her perception of an old man she was close to. This reluctance slows the pace. Michael, observing her reactions, worries about what he is sharing. Still, he remains sure it is necessary if he is to help her.
Other than getting Sarah to travel back to Spain, and therefore deal with what she ran away from, I wasn’t convinced by her grandfather’s machinations. Of course, from a storytelling perspective they provided an interesting strand, but the structure chosen was strange and at times irritating. The way in which the dead were brought back was troubling as was the influence they were capable of exerting. Irish family ties may be powerful but patronising from beyond the grave takes this to a whole new level.
I mentioned that I found the pacing slow. This wasn’t helped by the need to work out without initial explanation the relevance of the various ghosts in Michael’s past life, and the reluctance of his family to acknowledge any history or behaviours that may not fit their carefully maintained narrative. The family may be loving and supportive, but members were required to behave in certain ways and not ask potentially awkward questions. Conformity mattered.
I was also confused by the character, Tommy – initially a McBride, then someone closer. Perhaps I missed something but, if so, using the same name didn’t help. Michael’s occasional interjections – his determination yet reluctance to open a past he had kept hidden – didn’t convince in terms of helping Sarah.
Michael’s experiences in Spain as well as Sarah’s are eventually revealed. I was left wondering why the big secrets could not be shared. For all the family is presented as an important anchor in their lives, if they cannot talk to each other about personal matters then such value is questionable. Certain threads remained unanswered, particularly why Michael left his young family and what he did during those years. Annie remained loyal, as a religious woman would, but at what cost?
Sadly this was a story that simply didn’t work for me. It happens, and I hope the book finds many more appreciative readers. Perhaps what I expected to appeal – the author’s background making me anticipate more shared attitudes towards family and upbringing – shadowed a story I struggled to engage with. That the dead could remain in the land of the living as anything other than memory, continuing to judge and exert influence, I find seriously unsettling.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aderyn Press.