Review: “The Wormdigger’s Daughter” by John Farrell

"The Wormdigger's Daughter" Book CoverThis is the first fiction book I’ve read from a fellow Navanite (that’s what we call people who are from Navan, because we’re cool like that). I’m not entirely sure what I expected from this book so I feel I should tell the whole story of how I came to read it. Gather Round!

Due to my financial circumstances I was living in Navan, near my Mom’s place of work. One day a customer was mentioning to Mom that her Father had written a book. Mom took her cue and started mentioning how I had just finished a Masters in Creative Writing and was trying to get published etc etc and they had a nice little chat while everyone else in the queue waited. A few days later the woman returned to the shop with a signed copy of her Father’s book for me to read.

While it was a lovely, incredibly thoughtful gesture, it was one of those situations I hate. I have stacks of books in my to-read pile and most of them were books I really wanted to read and had been looking forward to. A quick skim of the blurb on The Wormdigger’s Daughter tole me it was most certainly not my kind of book. I resent these situations because I feel obliged to read these books, books that a friend gives me because “Oh my God, you’ll just love it, it’s so you!” and it really really isn’t me at all. These books waste time that I could spend reading other, sexier books (Or re-reading Terry Pratchett). But in the past two years I’ve made up my mind to read more broadly. Being forced to read outside my genre in college really helped my writing and reading books I hate or thought were terrible *cough* Twilight *cough* taught me a lot about what not to do and the market and other things like that so I put The Wormdigger’s Daughter in the middle of my to-read pile and soon after it was buried in an avalanche of books and forgotten Every now and then the title tugged at my memory.

Despite the impression I got from the blurb there is no denying that The Wormdigger’s Daughter is a damn intriguing title. Eventually I sat down to read it and I’m glad I did. I was expecting a woe is me, Angela’s Ashes, those damn English, look how crap Ireland is kind of story. It is, in essence, a very simple story with a very simple framing narrative. Molly and Frank work on a landlord’s estate. Three of their children die quite young. Their only surviving child is a girl called Angel. The landlord lays a claim to her and to protect Angel the family run away in the dead of night. They are accused of stealing which means they have to keep running and their whole lives focus around keeping Angel safe and secret. it is clear this life is not sustainable. This story is told my Molly and Frank many years later to the author as a young man. The characters rarely stray into three dimensional territory and I believe the resolution of Angel’s story is a bit too neat (though that may be just the cynic in me unwilling to believe that people can quite regularly be selfless).

But the real reason to read this story is not for the authentic, detailed rendition of life in feudal Ireland. It is for the way the story is told. We are traditionally a nation of story tellers and there is a very strong oral tradition in Ireland. This book perfectly captures the rhythm of verbal storytelling. IT reminds me of listening to my grandparents or old men in the book telling epics that you don’t want to end. The language is very simple with lots of repeated phrases as the couple tell their story again and again. As a result it trips along at a lovely pace as this language sucks you into the family’s trials and tribulations. It is hypnotic, I read most of it in one sitting which I rarely have time to do these days.

It seems to be based on a true story, though I cannot confirm this. And while this story has plenty of dark moments it has an overriding note of happiness and perseverance which is quite rare in these days of fashionable gritty realism. A pleasant surprise and definitely worth a read if you have interest in Irish history.