Knowing that I would be writing my dissertation on Daisy Johnson’s beautiful Fen, it was good luck that I recently went to an event at Waterstones on Gower Street (clearly the best Waterstones in London) and heard Molly Aitken talk about her debut novel, The Island Child.
Set on a remote Irish island, The Island Child is about everything I am interested in and writing about myself: motherhood, folklore and human relationships with nature. It goes without saying that it’s the perfect counterpart to Fen and will be heavily featured in my dissertation (when I actually get around to writing the bloody thing).
Aitken’s prose is floaty yet sharp (this makes sense to me) and self-assured from the start. This line on the first page was when I knew it would work for me: “On the island, the sea was what separated women from men.” Gender boundaries. The ocean. It’s everything I love and love to write about!
I really liked Aitken’s fragmented style of writing, with chapters and sections short and interwoven between the main character Oona’s childhood on the island, and her as a mother looking for her runaway daughter. The shortness of these sections balances well with Aitken’s quite lyrical way of writing – it adds to the folklore element of the environment, and of the characters’ lives. Between chapters, Aitken tells a myth about the mother and the daughter which runs parallel to the many ways there are mothers and daughters in the main story.
Forever writing about motherhood myself, I love all the ways the women in The Island Child were mothers, good and bad – from Oona’s religious yet hypocritical mother, to the mysterious and vilified Aislinn who dances naked on the shore and is mistaken for a sea fairy. And when Oona is a mother herself, she can never let go of the trauma faced on the island. To her daughter, she is an absent and distracted mother. Although she wants to be better, Oona has to fight to prove that her life is not a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have a couple of thoughts about the writing: at times I wondered if the fragmented nature of the book meant that it was difficult to really get into a scene or moment. And I found I couldn’t connect with Oona as much when she left the island and was in Canada. It’s almost as if I only wanted the Oona from the unique and fertile setting of the island. But maybe that was the point of it all: we can never truly escape our homes, and who we are when we’re there.
The Island Child is a story about loyalty and loss, about what it’s like to grow up in an isolated community where superstition rules above common sense. The dark and gothic tone suits the location perfectly, as does the weaving of myth and reality together. It tells us that we make our own stories, and we can choose to be different to what’s gone before.
The book is so rich with things I want to write about in my dissertation, I’m actually looking forward to getting started. Wish me luck!