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The International Writers Magazine
:Book review

A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, (Doubleday) March 2006
ISBN: 0 385 609698

Clare Sager review

Altar boys, priests and alcoholism: not the most promising triptych for an uplifting, sensitive story. However, Siobhan Dowd’s 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 doesn’t have to worry about the questionable fashions and hair-don’ts 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 father’s faith has grown stronger while Shell’s died with her mother… that is until a new priest comes to the small village, Father Rose. His sermons bring Jesus walking across water and back into Shell’s 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 – that’s what I call growing pains!), our protagonist manages to go on with dignity and grace, thanks to her new connection to Christ.

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 Shell’s 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 children’s 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!)

Dowd’s 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 compelling.

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. Shell’s 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 children’s fiction lovingly crafted. Dowd may not have brought Jesus into my life, but she has renewed my hope in children’s non-fantasy fiction.

© Clare Sager Feb 22nd 2006

Clare ihas an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Portsmouth

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