In one (hyphenated) word I’ll sum up this debut novel – heart-warming. Now this is not an easy accolade to achieve, especially from a cold, cynical, middle-aged man like myself. Get this slighty wrong and the end result can be mawkish, sentimental, whimsical- all things which do not grab me as a reader. Emma Claire Sweeney has got this just right and the result is a first-class novel that is a joy to read.
Main character Maeve Maloney is approaching 8o having lived most of her life in a Morecambe Guest House, inherited from her parents. In recent years it has become a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers. Maeve has very much given her whole adult life to Sea View Lodge (as a former guest house owner I can appreciate how necessary this total devotion is to make your place successful) but this hides a great sadness from her past.
The story alternates between the present with Maeve as honorary grandmother to two of her staff members with Downs Syndrome who have fallen in love. This opens a whole can of worms for families, social workers etc and running alongside this is a narrative strand from the mid 1950’s when her family’s life was centred on the care of her severely disabled twin sister at a time when institutionalisation was the recommended option. Maeve’s life pretty much grinds to a halt in her mid 20’s when a chain of events sees her planned future pulled away from her. The past and present combine when old friend Vince seeks her out.
This book is rich in detail and characterisation and the past and present switch without much sign-posting and with very little of the jarring this technique can engender. There’s also official correspondence and snatches of twin sister’s Edie’s sayings and phrases. I know how readers can complain when time-frames switch around yet this has been done so intelligently and so well that it is a smooth, highly-involving read throughout. It does show how the attitudes towards disability have improved in the last sixty or so years yet acknowledges the tremendous uphill challenges still faced. First and foremost this is a tale about love and friendship, of making the best of what you’ve got and how regretting the past can stop you moving on. It’s a bittersweet lesson as Maeve learns to cope with past incidents that have set the pattern of her life.
At no point is it sentimental, however. It focuses on the small details of life that realistically searches for humour in difficult situations. I actually really did not want to leave these people and their Morecambe home. I believed in them totally (although the relentless grind of working in such an establishment, the cooking, cleaning and dealing with the public was a little glossed over perhaps).
The author’s inspiration for her book is her autistic sister. In an interview in newbooks magazine she states;
“I have chosen to celebrate the kind of families who fought – sometimes against the odds- to bring up their disabled and non-disabled children together – the kind of families who sought to care for each other with tenderness, humour and love.”
Goal achieved! I don’t know exactly what’s coming over me. I’m notoriously stingy with my five star ratings. I would expect to read only a couple of five star books a year but this is my third maximum award so far in 2017 and it’s still only February. Testament to the number of great books out there. I hope you seek this one out.
Owl Song At Dawn was published in paperback by Legend in 2016.