Set in Ireland from 1976 to 1981, this heartbreaking novel traces the gradual maturing of Michael McDonagh, whose father leaves the family for long periods of time to work in America, leaving the boy, his sister, Molly, and their mother, Moira, to make due on the dole in his absence.
Moira bears the sly gossip of neighbors, constant rumors of Padraig’s dalliances with other women. When still young and impressionable, Michael both loves and fears his father's power and intensity, the temper that turns so easily physical; yet their bond is deep, the son conscious of his father's struggles to survive. When Padraig leaves once more for America, Moira slowly unravels, her tentative hold on reality slipping with each passing day.
The children instinctively understand that they can’t help their mother, sensing that whatever is wrong cannot be easily fixed, but Michael remembers a time “before her illness and his America had taken them away from each other.” There is no time for childhood with Moira McDonagh unable to cope with the day to day necessities; brother and sister are forced to mature, unprotected and vulnerable.
Michael worries constantly about Moira, insecurities bred by her illness forcing him to confront an adult world for which he is ill-prepared: “the ghost that roamed the countryside every night...walking the fog-shrouded fields...looking for something that in the light of day was lost and forgotten, was our mother.” When his twin dies, Padraig returns for his brother’s funeral. With only these few days in each other’s company, Michael learns the dimensions of the man, the depth of his love, a time he will treasure when his father leaves again.
Michael enjoys a short romantic tryst with a local girl, Cait Delacey, a sweet taste of the promises of adulthood. His time with Cait will prove transitory, eventually tainted by the intrusion of the world and the Troubles that have affected the country for years. But for a while, Cait and Michael escape from the tedium and poverty of their days, constructing a secret place for their meetings, a hideaway that will reveal the harshest betrayal Michael will ever endure. Everything Michael has believed, everyone he has trusted, all will be turned upside-down by events over which he has no control.
In an elegant novel defined by its lyrical prose, a close-knit society is riddled with the contradictions of religion and superstition, a common confusion in the land of myths, every explanation of the natural world tainted with the suggestion of a curse. The paucity that strangles the family’s joy awakens the very real suffering that goes hand in hand with poverty, never enough to eat, no credit, threadbare clothing, cold leaching each surfeit of warmth, all exacerbated by an unforgiving landscape.
The panoply of human emotions is cast against the dramatic background of the Irish countryside, page after page evoking a harsh present and mythic history, the symbiotic relationship of state and religion, the rituals and moral confines of the Catholic Church, the petty grievances between neighbors and a profound understanding of commitment. Michael is changed by his burdens, the Troubles, insidious poverty, Padraig’s distance in America, Moira’s creeping illness, Cait’s innuendoes, a shapeless future and a bitter truth, crossing painfully from childhood to adolescence.