The International Writers Magazine:Book review
Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, (Doubleday) March
ISBN: 0 385 609698
Clare Sager review
boys, priests and alcoholism: not the most promising triptych
for an uplifting, sensitive story. However, Siobhan Dowds
debut novel does indeed manage to include this trio in a poignant,
yet ultimately hopeful, tale.
Shell is a fifteen-year-old growing up in a small village
in the south of Ireland in 1984. She doesnt have to worry
about the questionable fashions and hair-donts of the time,
because this may be a teen read, but it is much more a
piece of young adult fiction with brains and tears.
Mam died over a
year ago, leaving Shell with an alcoholic, devoutly Catholic father
and two younger siblings, Jimmy and Trix. Her fathers faith has
grown stronger while Shells died with her mother
until a new priest comes to the small village, Father Rose. His sermons
bring Jesus walking across water and back into Shells life in
vivid colour and sound.
These reveries and the kindness of Father Rose give Shell some hope
in the confines of the harsh life she leads. When she loses the only
girl she can call a friend, Bridie Quinn (who steals Shell her first
bra thats what I call growing pains!), our protagonist
manages to go on with dignity and grace, thanks to her new connection
That is, until Shell finds herself pregnant, giving birth on the kitchen
floor and at the epicentre of a scandal that rocks her world.
Despite the dramatic, intense events that take place, this novel is,
in fact, thoughtful and heartening there are even some laughs
woven in for good measure, thanks to the liveliness and sharp tongues
of such characters as Declan Ronan, another of Shells school-friends.
Shell is a strong character who does not mope and moan over her bad
luck, but instead gets on with life as best she can; her thoughts and
memories are effective and evocative of childhood and teendom.
Even more refreshing than a central character who is not obsessed with
boys and fashion is the fact that A Swift Pure Cry is not dismally predictable
from the first two chapters too many books on the shelves of
the childrens section are! How inspirational to find a writer
who does not patronise younger readers with a lifeless plot, one-dimensional
characters and cotton-wool-wrapping for gritty subjects. (And how invigorating
to find a publisher willing to take on such a writer!)
Dowds handling of difficult subjects (teen sex, pregnancy, alcoholism,
religious zeal!) is sensitive, and although the pacing is calm, it is
elegantly managed and, thanks to likeable characters, the story remains
It is worth pointing out that although Shell and many around her are
Catholic, this is by no means a novel that preaches with brimstone and
lightning. Shells religious experiences are very much idiosyncratic
to her and beautifully described by Dowd in a way that will warm a reader
from any spiritual path (or none).
The main problem with A Swift Pure Cry is that the dangerous
moments scattered throughout are resolved too quickly. The novel would
benefit from just that little bit of suspense: the tension of wondering
how Shell will fare when her drunken father mistakes her for her dead
mother will he, wont he?
Despite this one flaw, A Swift Pure Cry is a rare gem, carefully
faceted to exquisite effect: sensitive older childrens fiction
lovingly crafted. Dowd may not have brought Jesus into my life, but
she has renewed my hope in childrens non-fantasy fiction.
© Clare Sager Feb 22nd 2006
Clare ihas an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Portsmouth
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