The Island Child is the debut novel of a new literary voice, Molly Aitken. Set on the island of Inis, an imagined island off the west coast of Ireland, The Island Child is a lyrical exploration of childhood, motherhood, and the role the past plays in our lives. Molly Aitken’s prose is beautiful and poignant, and it really brings to life the island, its inhabitants, and their lives.
The novel revolves around the main protagonist, Oona. The narrative is split in two alternating parts; Oona’s childhood and Oona’s adult present. The first shows us what life on an island in the middle of the 20th century was like. Oona is a child, a female child, and although curious and adventurous she is constrained by society and her mother’s expectations and beliefs. Oona’s childhood self is lively and endearing and there will not be many readers who won’t root for her. It is through Oona’s early years that we see some of the main themes, running throughout the book, begin to unfold. Her strained relationship with her mother poses many questions in regards to motherhood, fear for your child and how much protection is too much. It is also through the early narrative that we see the way the island functions. The small community is, naturally, a place where gossip thrives and where differences are not welcome. We see the unwritten rules that the community follows, and the roles men and women play in it. Aitken’s writing is spectacular when depicting the island and its nature. The susurration of the water is ever-present in the novel, the sea becomes a character of its own, the island comes to life under the penmanship of Aitken and it is a truly beautiful experience to read her depictions.
Unlike the young Oona, Oona the adult is not as easy to like; however, it is easy to sympathise with her. Her escape from the island comes with a trauma that will haunt her throughout her adulthood and later the reader sees that life is not kind to this island child. This justifies some of Oona’s cruel actions and the mistakes she makes and through her we see another form of motherhood that, albeit different from her own mother’s, is just as unkind. It is also through the adult character that the reader sees the role the past can play. The past haunts Oona and shapes her but she also shapes it in return. She moulds her memories and past experiences afresh and uses them to justify some of the mistakes she makes as an adult making the reader wonder how reliable a narrator she is.
Apart from Oona there are a number of characters around her and this is where the book comes somewhat short. The reader gets glimpses of Pat, Oona’s husband, Enda, her gay brother, Joyce, her daughter, and many more including the enigmatic figures of Aisling and her son. This cast of character was so promising, but it felt two-dimensional. None of the background characters were given enough narrative space to fully develop and it is a shame because they sounded just as interesting as Oona herself.
However, with this said The Island Child is a great debut novel. The story is a page-turner as the reader learn more about Oona and her lives. The themes, although well-discussed ones, are depicted in a new fashion and leave the reader wondering and asking questions, and the depictions are beautiful! Molly Aitken is definitely an author that I will keep an eye on and for anyone looking for a new literary voice The Island Child might be the one for you.
The Island Child is out now, published by Canongate