‘If I could go back to being sixteen again, I’d do things differently.’
‘Everyone over the age of forty feels like that, you total gom,’ says my best friend Lizzie Magee.
When she was young Mary Rattigan wanted to fly. She was going to take off like an angel from heaven and leave the muck and madness of troubled Northern Ireland behind. Nothing but the Land of Happy Ever After would do for her.
But as a Catholic girl with a B.I.T.C.H. for a Mammy and a silent Daddy, things did not go as she and Lizzie Magee had planned.
Now, five children, twenty-five years, an end to the bombs and bullets, enough whiskey to sink a ship and endless wakes and sandwich teas later, Mary’s alone. She’s learned plenty of hard lessons and missed a hundred steps towards the life she’d always hoped for.
Will she finally find the courage to ask for the love she deserves? Or is it too late?
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney is a stunning read that brings its central character’s difficult life alive in beautifully evocative prose. Mary Rattigan lives on a farm with her family in pretty challenging circumstances – Sadie, the matriarch of the family, drives her children away as soon as they’re able to escape, due to her emotional cruelty and the harsh discipline she doles out with merciless regularity. Mary perhaps because she’s the youngest and last to be able to leave, endures this the longest and manages to endure the awfulness of her childhood through fantasising about her escape and envisaging her new life as far away from Sadie and her clutches as is humanly possible…
Mary’s strict Catholic upbringing is set in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the Troubles. This period is brought vividly to life through tiny details that make the numbing misery of Mary’s day-to-day life have a real impact on the reader. Like me, you’ll be longing for her to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – but as we know – things don’t always work out like that. Mary’s desperation to escape from the misery and lovelessness of her upbringing results in her making a real ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ choice when she flees into the arms of husband John…
Married life with John definitely does not provide the ‘happily ever after’ that Mary has been seeking. She finds neither happiness, joy or comfort in her marriage and her emotional response to this is almost to shut her heart off to hope and hide herself away from a world that has offered such little comfort to her in an effort to protect what there is left of herself after so much pain, misery and disappointment.
Mary’s story truly is heartbreaking – we see her at the start of the novel with hopes and dreams we can all relate to. I also grew up in the 1980s and there was much here that I could connect to in terms of my dreams of a life beyond the confines of a small town and a common hope that there would come a time when I too would have more control over my own destiny. Mary’s honesty and hope as a young girl is cruelly juxtaposed with her emotional withdrawal as an adult and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be truly moved by her understatedly poignant reflections.
As well as Mary’s personal story, this evocative novel also brings Northern Ireland to life and makes the news headlines personal. Hearing about the Troubles in this more human context was really fascinating and I found Mary’s voice and the way that the everyday collided with the political and vice versa to make for a memorable and unputdownable read. If you enjoy a book where humour and sadness sit side by side and where you learn as much about the time and place as you do about the central character then you will absolutely love Tish Delaney’s writing.
I fell hard for Mary and her spiky, unique personality. Even though at times this was a harrowing and challenging read there were moments of dark humour and personality that shone through the darkness and made Mary a character that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It is a testament to the writing that you absolutely forget that these are created characters and I defy anyone to close this book without being captivated by this deftly captured tale of growing up in the troubles. Thank you so much to Anne Cater from Random Things tours for inviting me on Mary’s journey and I’ll definitely look out for reviews from the other bloggers on the tour
Buy yourself a copy of this stunning read here
Writer On The Shelf
Tish Delaney was born and brought up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
Like a lot of people of her generation, she left the sectarian violence behind by moving to England. After graduating from Manchester University, she moved to London and worked on various magazines and broadsheets as a reporter, reviewer and sub-editor. She left the Financial Times in 2014 to live in the Channel Islands to pursue her career as a writer.