By Jess Kidd; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
Now here’s a wee something to keep you amused while you sip an Irish coffee, a Guinness or a tot of Jameson’s on St. Paddy’s Day: Jess Kidd’s entertaining novel about a young man’s search for answers about his mother’s departure from her home and his ending up in an orphanage.
The story opens with our protagonist, Mahoney, receiving a bequest from the late Sister Veronica, who made his childhood in St. Anthony’s Orphanage miserable. It’s something she always denied existed: a message from the basket that held Mahoney when he was left on the orphanage steps.
Mahoney is enjoying a pint when Father McNamara hands over an envelope marked “For when the child is grown.”
Inside is a photograph of a half-smiling girl holding a bundle. On the back is a handwritten note saying that Mahoney was born Francis Sweeney. His mother was named Orla and he was from Mulderrig in County Mayo.
The message adds, “For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.”
Mahoney does the predictable thing: he sets off by bus in the spring of 1976 to check out Mulderrig.
Mahoney is young, handsome and cocky. Married women twist their wedding rings and wonder when they look at him. The boys at the pub are quick to buy him rounds.
All of these good citizens of Mulderrig claim to know nothing about Orla Sweeney’s fate. Some swear she left on a bus in 1950. Others say she was just a poor girl from a family of drunks. And there’s worse; the harsher members of the community describe her as a woman of low morals and unbounded willfulness.
What the reader knows from the prologue is that Orla Sweeney was brutally and coldly murdered. While the townspeople cluck and judge Orla’s behavior, they conveniently close their eyes to the fact that a murderer sits among them.
Author Jess Kidd leads readers forward and backward in time, unveiling Mulderrig’s history and an eccentric cast of characters bit by bit. Weaving in and around the living are the ghosts of the dead, whom Mahoney can see and communicate with. Vague, they are no more helpful than the living in Mahoney’s quest to learn his mother’s fate. Obliquely, however, they reveal the hidden natures of the living.
Charming and horrifying, magical and criminal, funny and sad, Kidd has created an enjoyable tale of an Irish village, an old crime and life beginning again impossibly hopefully.
Published in 2016, this was author Jess Kidd’s first book and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards that year. It was followed by MR. FLOOD’S LAST RESORT in 2018 and THINGS IN JARS in 2019.
Jeannette Hartman is the creator of BookReviewsbyJeannette, a weekly review of mystery books.