What Becomes of Us, by Henrietta McKervey: feminist awakening in 1960s Ireland
Debut novel on a feminist’s awakening in 1960s Ireland has echoes of Maeve Binchy
What Becomes Of Us
Hachette Books Ireland
In the 1960s thousands of young Irish people made their way across the Irish Sea to start new lives. Henrietta McKervey’s excellent debut novel is the story of a woman who comes back again. When we meet Maria Mills, it’s 1965 and she’s on the ferry from Holyhead with her young daughter Anna. After a decade in London, she’s now a widow. At least, that’s what she tells everyone, including Anna, but the reader soon realises that John Mills is very much alive, and that Maria had good reason to leave him.
Thanks to her old school friend Eve, Maria gets a job at what will soon be officially called RTÉ, taking down reporters’ copy over the phone while Anna is cared for in the home of their garrulous neighbour Mrs Halpin.
Haunted by her life in London, Maria wants to keep her head down, but the more lively Eve wants to shake things up. She and her friends are on a mission to make Dublin’s pubs serve women pints, carrying out playful acts of disobedience in the city’s watering holes.
Maria’s own life becomes more interesting when she finds herself working on a programme about Cumann na mBan as part of the broadcaster’s 1916 commemoration celebrations.
When she discovers that her elderly neighbour Tess was once a member of the nationalist group, she’s determined to investigate, and discovers that Tess began her political activism as a suffragette in London. Tess is reluctant to talk about 1916, but over the course of the novel both she and Maria discover that the past never stays buried forever.
Behind What Becomes of Us’s rather generic cover and bland title is a thoughtful, poignant and insightful novel. McKervey won the inaugural Maeve Binchy UCD Writing Award, and there’s a hint of Binchy in McKervey’s ability to tell a complex, entertaining story with intelligence and wit.
McKervey’s writing, however, is more understated than Binchy’s, and she’s interested in exploring big questions as well as telling a compelling story: questions about female activisim and solidarity, and the hold that the past can have on both individuals and the self-image of a nation.
“A story retold is a different story,” thinks Maria, as she watches the filming of a television reconstruction of the Rising. “Hindsight throws different shadows, creates a play of light and shade that didn’t exist the first time.”
Some writers might have been tempted to lay on the period detail with a trowel, but McKervey paints her picture with a lighter touch. As radio and film producers squabble over the best way to present the Rising (“our perspective is to be one of nationalism, not socialism”), McKervey explores the ways in which stories change in the retelling, and how the significance of certain events isn’t always apparent straight away.
Many writers of historical fiction give their heroines unconvincingly modern attitudes, but refreshingly, Maria isn’t an anachronistic trail blazer. She’s followed a fairly conventional life from convent school to marriage and motherhood, and while she’s finally found the strength to leave her husband, she doesn’t want to be a radical; Eve’s campaign of rebellion in Dublin’s pubs make her uncomfortable.
Which is why her quiet feminist awakening feels so convincing. There’s no dramatic moment of revelation, just the realisation that everything from the pub campaign to the confusion in a meeting when a woman speaks up are “links in a chain . . . they are all connected and she’s beginning to believe that they all – somehow – matter. But if that’s true, how can she continue to ignore them?” McKervey shows the continuity of women’s struggles, and subtly but persistently shows the importance of female solidarity – solidarity that can, we discover, be found in some unexpected places.
There are times when the story falters. Maria’s objection to Mrs Halpin as a childminder feels a little forced for the sake of drama, especially Maria’s discomfort with the latter’s not-particularly-extreme religious faith; wanting to get rid of a competent and convenient childminder whom the child adores partly because she’s a conventional practicing Catholic seems unlikely for a woman in 1966 who sends her child to a Catholic school.
Also, Tess’s evolution from suffragette to Cumann na mBan fighter is presented as almost automatic; in real life, the question of whether it was more important to focus on Irish independence or female suffrage was hotly debated in the Irish nationalist suffrage movement. I wanted to know more about Tess’s decision, yet it was glossed over.
But maybe these small faults only jarred because the rest of the book was so utterly engaging. I look forward to seeing what McKervey does next.
Anna Carey is author of the Rebecca series.