Divided by her very nature, Ellen suffers the gift of the healer, an impossible burden that consumes her soul, leaving her powerless and conflicted. A solitary, taciturn child with flaming red hair, Ellen has never cultivated friends, trapped on the barren island of an isolation so pervasive that she is held captive by her own dark nature.
The rare gift is yet another mark of her difference from others, her unbelonging: “If you do not bring forward that which is in you, that which is in you will destroy you.” So Ellen runs, runs from the first inkling that she is different from others, through her teen years and straight into the arms of bad boy Robbie and an unsuitable marriage.
The marriage fails to offer shelter, the emotional tempest of the past rising once more to the surface when she loses Robbie’s baby. When Ellen meets Liam, a sculptor visiting the north, she runs again, incapable of contacting her wild, sometimes savage husband to tell him what she has done.
Fleeing to the south with the Catholic Liam, she finds her new home steeped in the culture of his upbringing. The otherness is more pronounced in the South, the familiar trappings of her Protestant youth replaced by the Catholic ritual and beliefs, the mores unfamiliar after the constant violence of the north: “Peace it may be on paper, but it’s an armed and arm’s-length peace.”
As the urge to “heal” resurfaces, Ellen wages a pitched battle against its intrusion, although Liam believes that she is foolish to ignore what can benefit others. Ellen is terrified, fearful that this power will destroy her: “I’m all twisted up inside… I’m doing the best I can.”
Over time and with the steady support of a friend, Catherine, Ellen embraces her gift, using it for the good of those who solicit her aid, all the while conscious of her unique isolation. The years pass - marriage, children, the union with Liam settling into soothing routines - until all is run aground by Liam’s personal crisis, testing the very foundations of their marriage.
Filled with contrasts and revelations, this beautifully wrought tale illuminates Ellen’s lifelong struggle to marry the disparate elements of her inner torment. The centuries-old divisions of north and south Ireland and the challenges of a marriage require more than Ellen is prepared to give.
Evoking the stunning beauty of the Irish countryside and the profound contradictions of a politically charged society, the novel is suffused with Ellen’s spiritual conflict, the passion of dispossession and a yearning for completeness. The past illuminated by the death of her mother and the present fully realized, Ellen survives her dark night of the soul: “I’m thinking that maybe when you reach that point you can’t be anyone but yourself.”