Who Is the Stolen Child? [Book Review]

Fleeing America and on a quest of last resort, Brigid returns to the family home in Ireland, to her uncle’s cottage on a fictional St. Brigid’s Island one mile from the Aran Islands off of Ireland’s west coast. She comes seeking a miracle child, and a man — or even a womb — is not necessary if she can find the holy saint’s blessed, or magical, well. To the islanders and perhaps the author, the pagan goddess Brigid blends indistinguishably into the Christian saint.

“The Yank” Brigid has a gift, the same gift her mother had which drove her from the island all those years before: hands that heal. The gift comes with a price, and as she gives health and life to others, time and time again Brigid’s womb compensates by expelling the new life within her until she loses even that organ itself. St. Brigid’s hidden well is her one hope, but the islanders don’t reveal their secrets to outsiders.

Stalwart Emer, although born to the island,  is as much an outsider as Brigid; she is a woman with hands that give hurt, doubt, and despair. As a friendship and love between the two women develops, passion and need and desperation blur, fueled and intensified by their respective secrets. Both Emer and Brigid think Brigid’s hands can heal Emer, but some life-wounds are too immense for either magic or love to cure.

Like Yeats’ poem, which lends itself to the title, the magic of the fairies lives still on the island. Who is the titular Stolen Child? Is it all the children cast from Brigid’s womb? Is it Brigid’s mother, Nuala, who fled the island with Brigid inside her? As a child Emer hoped to be stolen by the faeries but as a mother, she lives in hawkish overprotective terror that her son Niall will be taken.

Author Lisa Carey seamlessly adds to the trove of faerie lore with an organic authority as great as Lady Wilde’s. At the same time as I inwardly accuse her of inventing folklore, I wonder if perhaps she only offers one or another fairy story I haven’t yet encountered.  I bristle because the tale of St. Brigid’s cloak expanding into a land grant for her abbey was transferred from the Curragh to the fictional island; in Carey’s world, there is no Kildare, no Church of the Oaks. Likewise, the Gaelic response to hello which I’ve learned, Dia is Muire duit — literally “God and Mary be with you [too]” — has been reinvented into “Brigid and Mary be with you.” I’m open to the possibility of regional differences and readerly suspension-of-disbelief, but I can’t help wondering: in what else has the author misled the reader? At least on the copyright page she acknowledges this artistic license to which I object. Still, Carey’s writing is so compelling and her weaving of folklore into village life is so adept that generations from now, people may very well point to the legends in this novel as authentic.

This is a powerful, intense, and haunting book.  Emer’s gift of pain and Brigid’s gift of healing are foils, and any accusations of witchcraft could equally apply to a fear of forbidden love. Carey offers the worst kind of horror, the horror of human frailties. Deep inside us, we all carry Emer’s pain. In her darkest hour,

                            “[Emer] stays alone . . . with no ability to break the ugliness

she has begun, and not enough courage to ask someone,

her son, her sister, her lover, to help pull her out from

underneath the terrible weight of herself” (296).

On the island, beside Brigid’s healing well, there is too a cursing stone.

Domestic horror as much as magical realism underpin this historical fiction about the resettling of islanders to the Irish mainland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Carey’s novel reminds us that fairies aren’t cute benign tinkerbells. The darkness of Emer’s childhood only expands as the novel progresses. The reader is briefly lulled by the quaint Celtic island culture, but we should have known better.  In the end, St. Brigid herself offers unexpected hope and redemption.  The Stolen Child is a beautiful, dark, disturbing tour-de-force. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Bonus material: I especially appreciate the “Author’s Picks: Favorite Books by Irish Authors” and web links on the islands Inisbofin and Inishark which the author provides at the end of her book.

 

Craft notes: Author Lisa Carey deftly handles point-of-view and the gradual revelation of backstory. This is an expertly crafted novel, and I look forward to reading more of this author.

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