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An Unravelling: A complicated woman haunted by grief and guilt

Review: Elske Rahill is particularly good at writing from the viewpoint of children

An Unravelling
An Unravelling
Author: Elske Rahill
ISBN-13: 978-1786691019
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Guideline Price: £18.99

What is unravelling in Elske Rahill’s powerful new novel? The ties that bind the four generations of the dysfunctional Kearney family, for one. And also the mind of the family matriarch, Molly.

Molly’s husband Dinny Kearney was an Irish artist who was never quite accepted into the Soho art world of the 1950s, but who subsequently achieved massive critical and commercial success.

Now widowed and in her 80s, Molly is the owner of a substantial fortune and a large Dublin house, but she hasn’t forgotten her working class childhood in the terraces of Stoneybatter, or the struggles and tragedy that she had to endure in the early years of their marriage.

Molly has always worked hard, and she’s still working in her 80s, helping to look after her young great-grandchildren. Her own three daughters have, as Dinny once pointed out to Molly, “never worked a day in their lives”. Dinny believed that letting his children drift along on his money was their parents’ greatest mistake in life, and given the evidence presented in the novel, he’s not wrong. Eileen is a self-styled free spirit who abused her now-adult daughters, Cara and Freya. Aoife is a monster of greed. Sinead is not malevolent but is ineffectual. And there was once another child, a little boy who died in London, whose death haunts Molly for the rest of her life.


There is a sense of great weight about this book; the characters move through a dense and cloudy atmosphere of fear and suspicion

Cara is now an illustrator, married to her college sweetheart and the mother of three children. Freya is studying law at Trinity and working as a children’s party entertainer. She has a sensitive young son, Jem, and they are happily living with Molly.

This fragile stability is threatened, first when Jem’s aggressive father turns up demanding access, and then by the vile Aoife, who becomes enraged when she discovers Molly has contacted her solicitor in order to leave her fortune directly to her granddaughters. Cara and Freya aren’t looking for anything, but Aoife and her sisters swoop in anyway, with disturbing results as Molly’s mind and memories start to unravel.

There is a sense of great weight about this book; the characters move through a dense and cloudy atmosphere of fear and suspicion. For some, like Freya, Cara and Molly, their path is illuminated by love - for each other and for the youngest children - but not by much humour. There is very little laughter in the dark. None of the Kearneys seem to have any close friends, making the family dynamic even more claustrophobic. Even the children are anxious - a very real childish anxiety that is brilliantly portrayed.

Although the book is written in the third person, as the narrative progresses we see through the eyes of almost every character, and while the quality of Rahill’s sinuous, lyrical prose is constant, some of the characters are more interesting to spend time with than others. In her self-righteousness and sense of entitlement, Aoife is convincing, but she is also a literally repulsive creation; every time Rahill takes the reader inside her head, constantly bubbling with her fanatical hatred of the nieces she refers to as “the Ladies Muck”, I felt like I needed a shower.

Villains can be fascinating, of course, but extreme petty selfishness and greed is not inherently interesting. And a sour note is added by the fact that almost all the unsympathetic characters are physically unattractive, their flaws lingered over in detail.

Rahill is particularly good at writing from the viewpoint of children. There is a wonderful, very short chapter from the perspective of baby Peig, and while the rendition of toddler Megan’s inner voice veers dangerously close to Dorothy Parker’s parody of A.A Milne, the tone rings true. And then there’s Jem, whose confusion over the drama surrounding him is heartbreaking and beautifully observed.

But at the heart of the book is Molly, a complicated woman whose own artistic gifts were always subsumed by the all-encompassing drive of her husband, a woman haunted by grief and guilt, troubled by the fact that the human beings she knitted inside herself are so strange to her, a woman whose mind’s unravelling is depicted with sensitivity and heart-rending conviction. At one stage she wonders “Is it that there are blameless little sadnesses in it too, that run right down into the guts of the earth and change everything?” Rahill’s answer seems to be yes, but it’s an answer she delivers with striking grace.