A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd.

This book was different than I expected, which meant that it took me a few days to actually get in the habit of picking it up. (I also blame Harry Potter – I am alternating books as I do my final reread, and it’s hard, sometimes, to jump out of something you know very well into something that wasn’t quite what you expected.) After I got going, though, I didn’t want to put it down, and I finished it on Saturday night as Mike was conked out on the couch.

A Swift Pure Cry is the story of Shell, a fifteen-year-old in Ireland who has lost her mother and now shoulders the responsibility of taking care of her younger sister and brother, as her father is struggling with alcoholism and is unable to hold down a job. Shell becomes involved with Declan, a boy at her school, and finds herself pregnant soon after he leaves for America. Meanwhile, she is also dealing with her loss of faith since the loss of her mother and her slight infatuation with the new young priest, Father Rose.

I hadn’t thought the story was going to be quite so heavy when I first read about it, which was why I was put off a bit by reading the jacket flap. What’s so interesting about this book, though, is that it does deal with weighty issues such as death and faith and teenage pregnancy, but handles them with a remarkably light touch. Shell’s story is believable, that of a young girl who is in over her head with nowhere to turn, but instead of being hopeless, it simply presents things in a factual way. I expected the story to be bogged down in misery, but it isn’t that way at all. Hope even manages to break through in the end.

As a person of faith, I appreciated the way that faith was approached in the story – in a fluid way, it ebbed and flowed in the different characters, even Father Rose as he struggles with the question of whether he’s actually doing any good. The book made no promises about where the characters might end up as they work through their questions, but it didn’t close the door on faith and religion either, which I liked. I also appreciated that the issues of teenage pregnancy and faith could be addressed in a book that features Catholic priests without it devolving into a story about abuse within the Catholic church. In fact, Father Rose is probably the character I liked best.

Because of how introspective it is, this book isn’t for everyone, but I am glad I didn’t let the topic put me off of reading it. It is aimed at young adults, but is appropriate for anyone interested in the themes or in 1980s Ireland. Here’s a passage from the very beginning I particularly liked.

Shell remembered standing by Mam’s bed as she floated off. Dr Fallon, Mrs Duggan and Mrs McGrath had been there, with Father Carroll leading a round of the rosary. Her dad had stood off to the side, like a minor character in a film, mouthing the words rather than saying them. Now and at the hour of our . . . On the word ‘death’ Shell had frozen. Death. The word was a bad breath. The closer you got the more you wanted it to go away. Shr’d realized then she didn’t believe in heaven anymore. Mam wasn’t going anywhere. She was going to nowhere, to nothing. Her face had fallen in, puckered and ash-white. Her thin fingers kneaded the sheets, working over them methodically. In Shell’s mind, Jesus got off the cross and walked off to the nearest bar. Mam’s face scrunched up, like a baby’s that’s about to cry. Then she died. Jesus drained off his glass of beer and went clean out of Shell’s life. Mrs McGrath put the mirror Mam had used for plucking her eyebrows up to her mouth and said, ‘She’s gone.’ It was quiet. Dad didn’t move. He just kept on mouthing the prayers, a fish out of water.

One last note – the book is based on some actual events, and I do wish there had been an author’s note or some discussion of what actually happened at the end, but I did find the information on the author’s site.

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