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Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney - Review

Saturday, February 26, 2022


I stayed in Ireland for my next read after Sally Rooney, picking up this, which my friend Laura bought me for my birthday. She had recently read it and loved it and thought I would too. And she was right, I did! 

It's set mostly in the mid eighties in County Tyrone, in a fictional town near Omagh. At the beginning of the novel, it's much later in time, and we meet Mary, then in her forties, who has five children and has "lost" her husband. It's not clear what has happened to him until the very end of the book, but all the way through I wondered whether the book would have a happy ending or not. 

Mary Rattigan is the youngest of a family of seven children. Her parents have a farm in the countryside. Her mother, Sadie, is cold and abusive, often telling Mary how useless she is and often abusing her physically. The farm is scant in comfort - some kittens are drowned so that the children can't form bonds with them - and Mary's only sister Kathleen leaves, leaving Mary heartbroken. She has a friend called Lizzy; the two of them are close. She has a boyfriend called Joe, the son of the local doctor. On a school trip, however, Mary loses her virginity to someone else and subsequently falls pregnant. Everyone assumes the baby is Joe's - he is sent off to America. Mary imagines she will give the baby to her aunt Eileen, but then John Johns, from the neighbouring farm, offers to marry her.

John is the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and lives with his mother Bridie, who has been a mother figure to Mary throughout her life. Mary moves into the Lower Room of their farmhouse where she later has her baby. She and Bridie are close but John remains closed off to her. They don't consumate their marriageb until Serena is five and John has worked in England for a year to earn some money to update the farmhouse. Until now it has had no running water, no inside toilet, and no electricity. With the updates, Mary and John have to share a room for the first time, and have four sons in quick succession.

The whole book is like a family saga. It's easy to be very sympathetic towards Mary and the situation she finds herself in, and how much she grows to love John but can't quite get herself to admit it. I liked that the book was set in The Troubles and how that impacted everyone's daily life, and also how Mary speaks of dreading losing her sons to the violence. I loved John, you understand why he is like he is too. I liked Bridie and the farmhouse and the small comforts Mary finds. I really loved the book and I'm glad Laura bought it for me!

I sent it to my mother in law because I think she'll really enjoy it and she likes it when I recommend books to her (the last thing I bought her was Shuggie Bain, which she loved)

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