The Naming of Eliza Quinn by Carol Birch
Carol Birch is a British novelist who was born in 1951 and attended Keele University, England. She currently lives in Lancaster, England with her family.She is the author of eleven novels and won the 1988 David Higham Award for the Best First Novel of the Year for Life in the Palace, However, The Naming of Eliza Quinn was the first of her novels I had read. It is not a book that I would normally pick up, but it was book of the month for the book group that I attend in the Village Library.
The novel begins in the late 1960 when the bones of a three-year-old girl were found in the hollow of an ancient oak tree. The tree is beyond a derelict cottage in Cork, Ireland. They seemed to date back to the time of the great potato famine of the mid 1800s in Ireland.
The bones were discovered by an American woman, who inherited the cottage. It had lain empty for 40 years. Her search reveals that the house had originally belonged to The Quinn Family. Eliza Quinn was their baby. This story speaks of generations and of landscapes and abandoned villages It gives very vivid descriptions of that period of time in Ireland. It tells of the famine graves, old potato ridges sinking back into the earth and it traces a population that fell by two and a half million in under ten years. It is not a happy book.
The author unravels layer upon layer of family history. The reader is left experiencing the torment and heart break these people faced. Carol Birch manages to write vividly from several perspectives allowing the reader some insight into this complicated family feud. The story is a mix of social history, family secrets, and mystery that blend to give a tale of depth and character.
The ‘Irish potato famine’ is one of those historical episodes that I learned about in school but this book describes the misery it meant for those who lived through it.
The tale combines the strange mix of Eliza Vesey’s pagan charms, Roman Catholic beliefs and reliable pragmatism are vividly drawn. Her ‘sacrifice’ was presented as courageous and selfless. I did not find this an easy book to read because the depths of the family’s despair was so clearly drawn. However, that is to the author’s credit. It is a fascinating book. If you are interested in history and are not easily depressed, this is a novel I highly recommend.