Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2022

When You Wake and Find Me Gone, by Maureen McCarthy

When You Wake and Find Me Gone (2002) is an oldie from the TBR.  I bought it because Maureen McCarthy’s name was familiar from her bestselling novel Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life (1995) which was made into a mini-series.  A script-writer and novelist, she seems to write mainly YA, and the preoccupations of When You Wake and Fine Me Gone would be in that territory except that at 425 pages, it seems overlong for that market.


 

All throughout time there have been children who have had to struggle with the problem of whether it’s possible to love a parent who’s committed a heinous crime, but Mary McCarthy’s attempt at dealing with this issue is naïve and unsatisfactory.

#SpoilerAlert

The central character, Kit, is the daughter of  terrorists involved in the sectarian violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  She doesn’t know this for much of the novel, but when she does, she never really wrestles with the horror of knowing what her parents have done.  She is more preoccupied with her infatuation with a university lecturer, with her conflicted relationship with Leonie, the older sister who turns out to be her mother, and with the identity issues that flow from that.

When the novel opens, Kit is at university in the city, living in a grubby sharehouse with friends Tam and Brendan (who has Irish heritage too.) By chance she attends a lecture on terrorism and captivated as much by Sebastian the lecturer as she is by the topic of intractable international conflicts, she switches from literature to politics and also gets the lead role in a university play directed by Sebastian.

So when she gets a phone call from upcountry to tell her to come home because her sister Leonie has been involved in a car accident and may die, she refuses because she can’t let down the cast of the forthcoming play.  The plot makes its way through far too many pages of angst-ridden pleas from family and friends who try to make her realise that her priorities are misplaced.  All of these pleas are focussed on her relationship with the possibly dying and probably brain-damaged Leonie, and not at all about her responsibility to provide loving support to her anguished family.  This spectacular selfishness is justified in the novel by Kit’s resentment about Leonie’s on-and-off presence in her life.

Kit is not some giddy 15 year old.  She is 20.

The circuit-breaker for this impasse is her older brother Johnny, the one who is studying to be a priest.  It is he who breaks the news to her that Leonie is not her older sister, but her mother.  Everyone else has known that she was born illegitimate in Northern Ireland, so they have all been lying to her, but no one knows who the father is.

But there are 425 pages to fill, and so by a series of fortunate events, including a benefactor to pay her expenses, Kit abandons her family in extremis and goes off to Northern Ireland to find the father she has never met.

(Sebastian just happens to be going to a terrorism conference in London at the same time.  Irish terrorism was well-established in England.  Fenians attacked the Underground in 1883, and there was a coordinated IRA campaign of bombings in the Tube which began in 1973. Only two years before this book is set IRA paramilitaries had detonated a bomb in London’s Docklands, killing two people. The book is set in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement had been reached in April of that year, but splinter groups opposed the ceasefire, and the Omagh bombing in August of that year had killed 29 people and injured over 200 others.)

Punctuated by confessional letters from Leonie to Kit (never delivered, but fortuitously found by her, and not by the security services) the plot moves forward to the next moral dilemma.  Kit’s education about terrorism moves from the abstract (layered by a one-sided explanation of the causes and impacts of the Troubles) to the real when her contacts in Belfast locate her father in the Republic, and she overhears him with conspirators planning to breach the ceasefire by bombing the Cenotaph in London.  The plot includes using her to smuggle the fake passports to Dublin.  Kit is more indignant about this cavalier use of her, his daughter, than she is about the prospect of people being killed.

There are multiple plot holes in what happens next, but the major problem is that (like her mother before her) Kit seems to breeze through the entire episode without any repercussions.  Security Services, double agents and rival splinter groups were operating all over Ireland north and south, the UK and Australia, and were monitoring all sorts of activities.  Yet nobody notices Kit’s movements, traces her phone calls or puts her on a watchlist because of her association with Eamon (wrongly convicted for arms dealing while never tried for the murders he committed).  Sebastian turns out to be remarkably clueless when Kit (tipsily trying to seduce him) tells him everything, and the conspirators don’t track her down when she disappears off to Dublin without the package.

The novel’s attempts to show how and why people become complicit in terrorism are weak.  Leonie’s activities are motivated by her (unrequited) love for Eamon and her sense of injustice (as she perceived it while living in the Falls as a foster parent to a family with a father in the Maze prison and a mother who’s had a breakdown). Kit is paralysed by the relationship she wants to have with a father she barely knows.

The causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland are complex and multi-facetted, but there is no attempt at nuance in When You Wake and Find Me Gone. There is no acknowledgement that there was widespread support from both Protestants and Catholics for an end to the violence, nor is there any recognition that the motives of the post Good Friday Agreement splinter groups were not always political.  Ceasefires are often punctuated by random breaches which are not only perpetrated by extremists, but also by those motivated by personal vengeance, or by loss of power and status, or by the arms trade, or by private rivalries. (I learned this from reading Momentum by one of the architects of the peace process, Mo Mowlam. (See my brief review at Goodreads).  The focus on a very immature young woman and her identity issues has its origins in YA but the material it encompasses and fails to address, needs the subtlety and coherence of an adult novel.

The novel also hasn’t aged well.  There’s a domestic violence thread with Tam in an abusive relationship — but apart from Kit making empty threats to the abuser, it is just accepted that the relationship continues.  This is not the sort of take-home message that would be acceptable in a novel today.  There’s also an awkward passage comparing Australia’s bland history with tragic history of Ireland, the implication being that Australia’s history began with European settlement and was benign.  I hope that today’s readers note these flaws.

Author: Maureen McCarthy
Title: When You Wake and Find Me Gone
Design by Marina Massina, Penguin design Team
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 2002
ISBN: 9780143000310, pbk., 425 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings $19.95.

 


Responses

  1. Our daughter loved Queen Kat, but I’ve not read it. I have no more to say – haha!

    Like

  2. Mmmmmm. One I’d definitely avoid. The whole Irish situation was/is incredibly complex and it sounds like the author gets nowhere near understanding it…

    Like

    • Well, to give her credit, her bibliography shows that she did a lot of background reading. But my guess is, that the picture you get from background reading would depend on which books you read. It’s a bit like the Israeli-Palestinian issue: until you’ve read a fair bit, you may not realise that you’re getting a perspective that favours one side or the other instead of the even-handed perspective you were looking for.
      My feeling is that (perhaps because of her own family background) this is an earnest albeit unsatisfactory attempt to ‘explain’ for an Australian readership how people become complicit, the way people became complicit under the Nazis and the Stasi. I can understand that. For those of us outside of any experience of it, it is a mystery which some of us try to understand by reading about it and others by writing. But for me, there is a line between understanding something and excusing it, and it takes a better writer than this one to make that distinction clear. (Especially if she was aiming at a YA market, but I don’t think she was. I think she may have been trying to cross over into adult writing.)

      Liked by 1 person


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