Widows’ Row by Shirley-Anne McMillan: Book Review

widowsrowI don’t usually review novels on this blog. Due to the demands of reading a lot of scholarly material in my job, I unfortunately don’t take enough time to read novels and therefore don’t feel equipped to review them.

But I can recognise a good story, and that’s what I found in a new novel, Widows’ Row, by Shirley-Anne McMillan.

On her website, McMillan is described as:

‘a writer and schools worker living in Northern Ireland. Shirley is part of an arts collective in Belfast called Ikon and she likes playing the guitar to her cat, making banana bread and walking in the forest.’

Regular readers of this blog will be alert to my interest in Ikon and will surmise that I read Widows’ Row in large part due to McMillan’s role in it. This is true – especially after McMillan posted on the Ikon Facebook page that it: ‘Contains Ikon-ic themes.’

McMillan will be speaking at Greenbelt this weekend, as well as taking part in Saturday’s Ikonbelt transmission to Greenbelt.

Widows’ Row is a young adult novel, centred on the experiences of Lila, a bright and self-aware teenager who doesn’t mix with the ‘in’ crowd at the local school.

She is in love with a kind classmate, Jonathan, who – until his attempt to end his life by jumping into the Irish Sea – seems to transcend the petty cliques at the school.

McMillan’s story and the development of her characters never patronises the young reader (or an older reader like me, for that matter!). McMillan expects readers to confront the complexity of Jonathan’s suicide attempt, Lila’s mixed feelings about caring for her widowed invalid father, friendship, sexuality, and the absence of God in life’s painful experiences.

Widows’ Row is set in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, and is quite literally haunted by the fishing disaster of 1843, in which 76 men died. Lila and her father live in Widows’ Row, a street of cottages that were built for the widows and dependants of the fishermen who perished.

Characters associated with the fishing disaster frame the novel and provide a compelling supernatural element, which in some ways contrasts sharply with the felt absence of (an interventionist) God.

To me, it seems like Lila feels the absence of God through her encounters with the God of Jonathan’s parents – a strict Protestant God who demands repentance; and (what she thinks is) the God of her father – a Catholic God who mandates mass attendance and obeisance to the priest.

One of the most interesting characters in the book is the local priest, Fr Michael. He confesses to Lila that he doesn’t believe in the kind of God she thinks he believes in. He agrees with Lila’s assessment of God when she explains why she won’t be returning to mass (p. 142):

‘Because I don’t believe that there’s a God. I don’t think there’s a person in the sky who answers prayers or makes the world happen or who talks to people and tells them what to do.’

The dialogue throughout the book between Lila and Fr Michael opens the door for the reader to reflect on a God at work in the world through people, like Lila and Jonathan, who struggle to recognise their own heroism and self-worth.

And there’s still a place in Widows’ Row for readers to ponder the ‘old stories’ about God and Heaven, as articulated by Fr Michael (p. 201):

‘It’s not a lie – about God and Heaven – not really. I believe that there is truth in hope, in those stories that help people. There is truth in that. The only difference is that I think that most of the stories about God are made up. It doesn’t make them less important.’

Widows’ Row is simply a cracking yarn – I was so taken in by the story that I read the entire book on a single Sunday afternoon. But its weightier material, some of which I’ve described in this review, gives a reader plenty to ponder long after putting the book down.

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