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Bound by blood: This Family of Things by Alison Jameson (Doubleday Ireland, 2017)

The beauty of a novel is that it appeals to different readers in different ways. Some readers are plot-focussed and want to be gripped and pulled along at speed; others look for a setting that resonates with them, or a particular theme or genre. For me, characters are key – the most powerful and memorable novels I’ve read have intriguing, complex and empathetic characters, to which I feel bound throughout the journey the novel takes me on. Alison Jameson’s fourth novel, This Family of Things, was perfect for me in that respect – Jameson’s talent for creating character depth is apparent from the first page.

Tullyvin, in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, is a small village, where everyone knows one another, and where secrets aren’t kept under wraps for long. Jameson juxtaposes this familiar, close-knit community early on in the novel with the introduction of her protagonists, the Keegans. Despite generations of their relatives living in Tullyvin, the Keegans are a family who keep to themselves – so much so that they don’t even share things with one another. Isolated both intentionally and as a consequence of their character, they occupy their family farm, but in separate buildings. The sisters, Margaret and Olive, share a cosy house overlooking the nearby lake, while older brother Bird lives alone in the unwelcoming farmhouse, cluttered with memories and noisy with silence. All three are as individual and unique as snowflakes; Olive is kindly, welcoming and jovial, while Margaret is hard, cold and outwardly thorny in her dealings with others. Bird is a complex character; on the surface he is stereotypically strong and silent, as a traditional farmer is expected to be, but the events of the novel reveal that he is deeply sensitive and emotional, and his lack of outward expression hides a loneliness that sits like a weight upon his chest. Although Bird and Margaret seem quite content with their position within the community – being left alone unless they are needed by other farmers – Olive openly strives to form relationships, and attempts throughout the novel to coax her toughened siblings into branching out and making more of their lives.

In the centre of Tullyvin, away from the rolling hills bordering the Keegans’ farm, lives Midge Connors, a young woman who is both mature and damaged for her age. Midge is a force to be reckoned with; she is hot-headed and fierce, but this belies a hidden fragility and naivety. She has grown up in a dysfunctional family, to whom she is tied by blood only. She feels responsible for her feeble mother, but her siblings and father are a source of conflict and have broken the family home. Midge’s explosive relationship with her abusive father comes to a head one November day in 2013, resulting in her lying injured and bedraggled in a field belonging to Bird. He stumbles across her and takes her in, and, as if by fate, they form a bond that eases both their wounds, and brings them out of their shells – one damaged by solitude, the other full of rage against an unfair world. As the situation between Midge and her father escalates, Bird becomes a refuge and a protector, giving him a sense of relevance in a world that had long forgotten him.

Alison Jameson’s language is both colloquial and lyrical. Deeply embedded in the setting of Tullyvin, her characters have multiple layers; they are complex, damaged and lonely, toughened up by hard lives. Midge’s arrival serves as a catalyst to set off a chain of events, drawing the three Keegans into the action and irrevocably linking them and changing them all, in different ways. Bird and Midge’s relationship is both passionate and poignant – despite her hard outer shell, Midge is innocent and inexperienced, and her disrupted upbringing has not allowed her the opportunity to discover a sense of self, or to find her designated path through life. Bird is more settled; he has lived alone for so long and desperately desires a connection with another human being, whom he can cherish and protect. To him, Midge is a sapling that can be nourished and nurtured; but Midge needs to spread her branches and experience more than just the small village she has grown to resent. Margaret Keegan was hurt by a loved one at a young age, causing her to build barriers and defences against future affection and companionship. After Midge interrupts the steady, but desperately sad, flow of Margaret’s life, she is forced to look back on the past and face it head on. Can she continue to live in such a way, shunning company, friendship, love, or must she take drastic steps to repair the wounds in her heart?  Similarly, Olive battles a personal scare alone, which encourages her to look for closeness beyond her immediate surroundings – but she fears that her age and social isolation might hinder her dream of settling down.

The novel moves between dual settings of Ireland in 2013 and America in 2016, and this non-liner narrative makes for a fascinating exploration of the paths taken by each character, and how one event or person can change someone’s life, however settled they may seem to be. The soft, rolling landscape and gentle routine of Tullyvin is at odds with the darkness that overtakes the novel at times; there are some harrowing events that cause emotional chaos for both the reader and the characters. The novel is quite slow to start, but it soon picks up pace and launches head first into a narrative of loss, anger, love and retribution. Jameson questions whether the past can truly be forgotten, the blotted pages wiped clean. As each character looks towards the future and a fresh start, Jameson reflects on the impact this has on their loved ones and family members. Tied to the small community of Tullyvin, and a family that is broken but deeply bound to one another, is it possible for them to leave everything behind and live happily ever after? The reader is left considering this even to the final poignant and emotive lines.

An insightful, poetic novel, This Family of Things delves deeply into the emotional workings of its characters and is sensitive but powerful in its delivery. Trauma and loss are balanced by joy and love, and the unbreakable family ties of the Keegans and Connors are revealed to be both a source of inner strength and a shackle of misery. It is possible to see the glimmers of hope throughout the novel, however; in the strength of the characters’ ability to overcome past traumas, and in the love they find in the homes of strangers. Emotionally draining but also fulfilling, Jameson’s carefully crafted novel will leave readers ruminating on the fate of the characters for a long time after its conclusion.

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