Book review: The Girl from Ballymor by Kathleen McGurl

The Girl from Ballymor by Kathleen McGurl
The Girl from Ballymor by Kathleen McGurl

The Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which is estimated to have led to the deaths of one million people, forms the haunting backdrop to a gripping new novel from Kathleen McGurl.

McGurl, author of The Emerald Comb and The Pearl Locket, has always been fascinated by history, particularly the ways in which the past can influence the present, and this evocative time-slip novel captures the very essence of history’s long arm.

At the heart of the story are two strong women… one struggling to keep her two children alive as hunger grips a devastated Ireland, and the other looking to the past to find answers for her future.

In the tiny village of Kildoolin near Ballymor in Ireland in 1848 widow Kitty McCarthy is close to despair as she runs out of food. Famine stalks the land as the potato crops have been blighted for nearly three years now.

The village is almost deserted and many have died, including four of her children from starvation or illness, and she is determined to keep her two remaining offspring alive. Young daughter Gracie is already suffering from malnutrition and teenager Michael needs food if he is to earn meagre wages from his work tending crops on the land of local English landowner Thomas Waterman.

The local families see none of the food grown there as it is all exported back to England but Kitty has other reasons for hating Waterman, a man she regards as cruel, arrogant and tyrannical.

If Kitty is to stop her children from starving to death, she must stay strong for them and decide how far she will go to save them.

In the present day, Maria McCarthy arrives in Ballymor to research her ancestor, Victorian portrait artist Michael McCarthy, and his beloved mother, the mysterious Kitty who disappeared without a trace from their local cottage home.

Maria is planning to write a book about Michael’s life and has always been intrigued by his many portraits of his beautiful red-haired mother Kitty. Rumour has it that Michael never found out where Kitty had gone but spent much of his adult life painting her from memory.

But Maria is also running away from problems at home with her boyfriend Dan and hopes that she will find answers to her own troubles amongst the ruins of Kildoolin, long abandoned, and the bleak moorlands and craggy hills of this stunning corner of Ireland.

As her search brings her closer to the truth about Kitty’s fate, Maria must make the biggest decision of her life…

The unsolved mysteries of Kitty’s troubled life are the bedrock of this compelling, heartbreaking tale of love and loyalty, motherhood and sacrifice, and the family bonds that can never be broken despite death, despair, hardship and absence.

McGurl is a born storyteller, packing her beautiful and sensitively written novels with real history, gripping plotlines and exquisitely drawn characters that remain with you long after the last page has turned.

The seamless transition between Kitty’s battle to save her children and Maria’s quest to discover not just her family history but the answers to her own questions about where and with whom she belongs makes The Girl from Ballymor a reading delight.

(HQ, paperback, £7.99)