Book #82

Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

I’m not yours and you’re not mine. That’s what I say to his dreaming face as I watch the shadows of his dark eyelashes dance by the light of a Tilley lamp.

It’s not the first lie I’ve told myself.
When I was sixteen, I wanted to fly. I was going to take off like an angel from heaven and leave the muck and madness of Northern Ireland behind as I struck out across the west coast of Donegal heading straight for America.
Nothing but the Land of Happy Ever After would do for me.

It was him I blamed for clipping my wings.
I fashioned a cage out of self-pity then and slipped it over my head like a boned corset to hold myself together and to lock him out.

But hate cannot bind two people to each other for twenty-five years, no matter how many dark skies have to be weathered. Only love can do that.
It’s the first truth I’ve told myself.

Mary falls pregnant at the tender age of sixteen during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Having been brought up harshly and devoutly, an unmarried mother was something to be talked about within the chapel and the community alike. Mary’s mother, someone you’d be stupid be caught talking about in church or community, takes her own action to protect the reputation of the family, and to save her own face.

Delaney carefully takes us through Mary’s life from childhood in a way which feels tender and familial. The way I felt for her was almost sisterly; I loved her, I yearned for her to make good choices, I exasperated with her. She had a difficult upbringing, a mother too quick with her slaps, a father too willing to turn a blind eye. We soon come to realise that Mary carries trauma from this, and mostly from words thrown at her rather than slaps. The feeling she is never good enough pervades itself in her mind and through the pages for the entirety of the novel.

The prose is gorgeous, sweeping Northern Ireland’s country and farmland, then across to its more commercial and built-up areas. Delaney describes the social panic, the checkpoints, the soldiers, the bombs, the chaos. She makes no subtleties in ensuring we know how terrifying a time this was for the Irish people, and that neither side of the argument were in the right with their opinions and behaviours.

Delaney’s true skill here was displaying the complex relationships and emotions experienced by every character in the novel. Everything is vividly raw, no one understands what others are holding close to them, each person has a purpose and will strive for that without sharing their feelings or dreams. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of how deeply miscommunication can wound us, how sometimes trauma can cause irreparable damage, and how the walls we build can be strong enough to ruin us.

I truly loved this; Delaney has done something truly evocative and powerful, and I’m looking forward to see what she does next.