Ms. McKenna is a best-selling author from Northern Ireland. I have not yet read her first book, MY MOTHER WORE A YELLOW DRESS; MEMORIES OF AN IRISH CHILDHOOD in which she describes a tumultuous and haunted upbringing. Her real-life experiences, growing up with an oppressive father and a compassionate mother, resonate in her fictional writing, creating a raw and realistic portrayal of life in picturesque County Derry and perilous Belfast during Ireland’s most troublesome times. Ms. McKenna brings each of her characters to life in a way the reader is certain the good folk of Tailorstown actually exist.
THE MISREMEMBERED MAN is the first book in the TAILORSTOWN SERIES. It introduces two broken, forty-something characters – farmer James Kevin Barry Michael McCloone (Jamie, for short) and schoolteacher Lydia Devine – each of whom suffers a devastating loss before the opening of the book. Both are searching for a way to cope with their feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.
There are some very dark parts to the story, especially during the flashbacks to Jamie’s time in the Catholic-run orphanage system. Let’s just say, it might have been better to be homeless rather than grow up in one of those institutions.
Out of the darkness and into the light, Rose McFadden, Jamie’s friend and neighbor, is a breath of comic relief throughout the entire novel. Bless her heart. Rose and her husband, Paddy, take Jamie under their wing upon the death of his uncle, helping out on the farm and dispensing much needed life-coaching.
Jamie is told by Rose he needs to find a woman, which terrifies him more than the thought of losing a limb. Lydia is in need of a date for a friend’s wedding – one of many such events she’s been forced to attend with her mother, Elizabeth, as her plus one. It is 1974. Thus, Jamie and Lydia both place an ad in the singles section of the local Mid-Ulster Vindicator. Something like . . . Woman seeks Man and Man seeks Woman for friendship and companionship.
Through the course of the ordeal from writing the ad to answering Lydia’s letter to their first meeting, Jamie is aided by the impossible-not-to-adore Rose, while poor Lydia is hindered by her impossible-to-like, recently widowed mother who, with a critical tongue and suspicious eye, treats Lydia more like a servant than a daughter.
Though Jamie and Lydia are vastly different in upbringing, education, and refinement, they are drawn together by an honest affinity and a yearning for something lost. However, Ms. McKenna doesn’t make things simple. A string of absurd and tragic events – common in the TAILORSTOWN SERIES – interferes with Jamie’s wishes for the elusive, happy life and Lydia’s desire to break free of her mother’s overbearing hold.
The ending is a tear-jerker which leaves you emotionally exhausted, but in the best way.
The story of Tailorstown resumes seven years later in THE DISENCHANTED WIDOW. Bombshell Bessie Lawless of Belfast is on the run with her nine-year-old son, Herkie. Prior to being killed in an automobile collision, her abusive thug of a husband, Packie, steals £10,000 from The Dentist, an IRA enforcer. No one knows where Packie hid the money, but The Dentist doesn’t care about that minor detail. He prefers his victims submit themselves to the luxury of a prolonged torture.
Bessie quickly devises an escape plan – hightail it out of Belfast and scrape together enough money to sail to a place even The Dentist can’t reach them: America. Unfortunately, her broken-down Morris Traveller only makes it as far as Tailorstown where she meets mechanic Gusty Grant and his piglet companion – Veronica. Finding the fetching woman stranded on the side of the road soon after leaving his garage – with little money, no car, and no place to stay – Gusty offers up his late aunt’s Rosehip Cottage for the bargain price of £5. Bessie gladly pays the dim-witted Grant with money from his own wallet, lifted by the crafty Herkie.
With the assumed name of Halstone, Bessie and Herkie become temporary residents of Tailorstown. Soon after, Bessie has the fortune of gaining employment as a housekeeper/cook for the local priest, Father Connor Cassidy.
Bessie in her red dress and exhibition cleavage, not unnoticed by even Father Cassidy, sticks out like a sore thumb in Tailorstown. Being from big-city, fast-laned Belfast, she looks down her nose at the citizens who don’t know what to make of her, including our beloved Rose McFadden.
Soon after Bessie’s arrival, Lorcan Strong sweeps into town. Lorcan is an artist from the Ulster Museum in Belfast and has been strong-armed into painting forgeries for the very same menace chasing after Bessie – The Dentist. Lorcan has returned to his hometown to help his mother with the business, following the death of his father. Having witnessed, first-hand, the enforcer’s methods of enforcement, Lorcan is glad to be away from Belfast and The Dentist for a spell,
While Bessie is at work, Herkie is left to his own mischievous devices, which includes the slingshotting of birds out of trees to Lorcan’s dismay. When the two meet under a tree near Rosehip Cottage – Lorcan’s childhood special place – they strike up a friendship. It’s through Herkie Lorcan learns of Bessie’s true identity and the danger of her situation.
Bessie and Herkie make their mark on Tailorstown, and in return, are forever changed themselves by the open-hearted citizens. With a more complicated plot than THE MISREMEMBERED MAN, several storylines are followed, including that of Peeping Tom Gusty Grant and the innocent Veronica; the mysterious comings and goings of Father Cassidy; the endearingly meddlesome Rose; and Lorcan’s budding friendship with the embittered and distrustful Bessie and Herkie. Used to making her way on looks alone, Bessie is astonished by the generosity and kindness of those who have nothing to gain for themselves in assisting her.
The third book in the series, THE GODFORSAKEN DAUGHTER, is a Cinderella, ugly duckling sort of tale. Ruby Vivian Clare is a farmer, right down to her thick bones. When Ruby’s father dies of a heart attack, her livelihood is stripped from her hands by a mother who seems to hate every ounce of Ruby’s being.
Relegated to tending the house and acting as maid servant to her mother and spiteful, younger sisters, May and June, Ruby’s life is a not-so-quiet torturing of the soul. The sisters live in Belfast but come home every weekend to be waited on hand and foot. Their favorite hobby is belittling Ruby, poking fun at her plumpness in comparison to their perfect beauty. While alive, Ruby’s father kept the peace and protected her from the brunt of attacks. On her own, Ruby can do no right, despite her meek and hard-working demeanor.
Martha Clare, Ruby’s mother, is a widow burdened with secrets and resentment toward her late husband’s mother, Edna Clare – a woman banished to a room on the second floor of their home, Oaktree House. Despite Edna’s passing years ago, Martha can still feel her presence and orders the last of her mother-in-law’s personal possessions be destroyed by fire.
The dutiful Ruby disobeys when she retrieves the dubious suitcase from the attic and hides it in her room. Inside, she discovers the implements of an unearthly craft – a crystal ball, a disk engraved with a five-pointed star, a curved blade in the shape of a crescent moon, and a small silver cup. Ruby cautiously explores through the remaining layers of contents, finally uncovering a book written in her paternal grandmother’s hand entitled The Book of Light.
Hearing the voice of Edna Clare in her head, Ruby begins to act differently – speaking her mind, standing up to Martha, her sisters, and any other busybody in town who sticks their nose into her business. Emboldened by the powerful words in The Book of Light, Ruby formulates three wishes: 1) She wants to see her father again; 2) She wants to have lots of money; and 3) She wants to meet someone nice and be happy.
When May catches Ruby attempting to carry out the “spell” as written in the book under the light of the full moon, the family is thrown into an uproar over Ruby’s outrageous behavior. A call is first made for a psychiatrist, then a priest.
Dr. Henry Shevlin responds to the emergency – a level-headed man who quickly recognizes the real problem stems from Martha’s controlling and judgmental temperament. He refuses to commit Ruby to St. Ida’s mental institution but agrees to treat her as an outpatient.
Dr. Shevlin’s story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Constance, a year earlier. In order to escape the painful truths discovered during the investigation, Henry leaves Belfast for a three-month position at the Rosewood Clinic near Tailorstown. Among his patients are a man who thinks he’s John Lennon, Ruby Clare and Jamie McCloone, who has taken up the bottle and entered a new state of depression.
SPOILER Rose McFadden returns as Jamie’s champion and determined matchmaker. When she meets Ruby at the scene of a near-fatal collision due to May panicking at the wheel, she decides on the spot the robust dairymaid is a perfect match for Jamie and may be the real cure to what ails him. SPOILER
THE GODFORSAKEN DAUGHTER is a perfect complement to the first two books and makes the reader beg for more. The cross over plots between Dr. Shevlin and his patients seemingly have no connection, but all is revealed in an ending which leaves you applauding for Ruby and smiling for Henry.
In all three novels, Christina McKenna writes with a lovely and sophisticated hand. The language she uses to describe her characters, their lives, the community paints a vibrant picture of rural Ireland. Each story winds its way into your heart with a perfect balance of comedy and adversity. These books represent what we most love about a well-written series – a story we want never to end.
Ms. McKenna is currently working on the fourth book in the TAILORSTOWN SERIES – THE SPINSTER WIFE. I, for one, cannot wait to revisit the charming denizens of County Derry.