The third book I picked for Reading Ireland month (hosted by Cathy and Niall) was shortlisted for the Women’s Price for Fiction in 2000. It tells the story of a group of teenage girls who spend four weeks at an Irish college in the Donegal Gaeltacht in 1972. The girls are at that age when they are just starting to question the rules and restrictions of the adults in their lives. They have to navigate that sometimes treacherous road of puberty, teenage friendships, class, and boys. There are two reasons for why this book did not work for me.
First of all, the book came at a bad time. I have just read a bunch of books that I really liked, and this one simply could not compete. I was not particularly interested in reading about these teenage girls trying to figure out each other and the opposite sex. Unlike the two girls in The Country Girls, there was nothing about any of the characters in this book that grabbed me; they could have been any teenage girl. Heck, they could have been me 25 years ago—a rather boring subject in my opinion.
Unlike the characters, the setting was very specific. It is Ireland in 1972, four years after the Troubles started in Northern Ireland. The conflict is of course mentioned in the book and was something that I wanted to read about. Regrettably, it doesn’t get more than a few comments. It is authentic in that teenage girls wouldn’t talk about it in more detail. But to me, it was confusing. I had to read up on it to understand their comments.
I also had to look up what a Gaeltacht is: “a district where the government recognizes the Irish language as the predominant vernacular.” The teenagers in this book are sent there to learn the Irish language and Irish dance. They stay with host families and are forbidden from speaking English, so that they can fully immerse themselves in Irish culture. Yet unfortunately the reader gets little to see of this. Again, there would have been no reason for teenagers to dwell on it, but to me, that would have been the interesting part.
While most of the focus is on Orla, one of the teenagers, a few times, the voice of the narrator changes. There is one part written as if Irish were translated word for word into English, one part that sounds like two old people reminiscing about a long-ago scandal, and one part that sounds like a dream. While I found the first one interesting, the latter two seemed unnecessary. Since all occurred only once, I don’t know what the point was.
I was left wondering whether Donegal Irish, Belfast Irish, Derry Irish, and Dublin Irish could really have been so drastically different that no one was able to understand each other, and whether Donegal food and hygiene were really so different as to completely repulse the girls. Maybe that was just typical teenage exaggeration? Frankly, I had neither the interest nor the patience to find out.
I am sure a reader more familiar with Ireland in the 70s would have an easier time relating to this story. I am left with the odd position of criticizing the characters for being too universal and the setting for being too specific. I had higher hopes for this book, especially because the author will receive the Irish PEN Award this year.