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The Insect Rosary – Book Oxygen Review

The Insect Rosary

Sarah Armstrong

Published by Sandstone Press 18 June 2015

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

The tangled relationships of sisters has long proved a fruitful area for writers to explore. Sarah Armstrong’s tale of two sisters is set in Northern Ireland both in the present day and during The Troubles. The sisters narrate the story, Nancy in the present day, and Bernadette in the flashbacks to 1982. This works well as each point of view, and the differing conclusions each draws, is clearly delineated.

Nancy and Bernadette spend their summers at their mother’s childhood home, a remote farm where their Uncle Donn and Aunt Agatha live. Their English father only arrives for the final week of the holidays and until he does the girls are mostly left to their own devices. They explore the farm buildings even though they have been told not to, with twelve-year-old Nancy daring her ten-year-old sister to open forbidden doors or climb into rickety old barns. Their Aunt Agatha, known to the girls as Sister Agatha as she almost became a nun, tries to instil discipline and respect but her efforts usually elicit a fit of the giggles. As a last resort she gives Nancy and Bernadette a black rosary each which they promptly mislay. There are various comings and goings at the farm, family and other neighbours arrive at odd times and the girls are shooed away to their bedroom. They sneak back to the stairs and try to listen to the adults’ conversations, hearing things that leave them curious and a little frightened. Everyone, it seems, is touched in some way by The Troubles.

In the present day the sisters, long estranged, return to the farm for a holiday with their families. Nancy and her annoying American husband, Elian, and troubled son Hurley; Bernadette with her husband Adrian and bratty daughters Erin and Maeve. Uncle Donn is going to sell the farm and Aunt Agatha is going to a nunnery so it is a last chance for them all to spend time there. For Bernadette it is a chance to go back to her childhood and finally understand why she had a breakdown. Nancy doesn’t want to remember, she only wants to make her mother happy by attempting a reconciliation with Bernadette.

Armstrong skilfully plants clues as to the reason for Bernadette’s breakdown, slowly revealing what happened that last summer at the farm. The flashback scenes are well written as the loyalty of the sisters is tested. Bernadette’s ten-year-old voice is particularly strong as she struggles to understand what the grown-ups are trying to hide. She is brave and her squabbles with Nancy feel authentically child-like. Nancy’s adult voice exposes her guilt and confusion over the events of that summer as she tries to deny Bernadette’s accusations of betrayal. Nancy’s husband is a useful foil to show just how insular and isolated the farm is and his blundering attempts to strike up conversations with the family and locals are wonderfully cringe-making. Although partly set during The Troubles, this is a story of how sisterly disloyalty can ripple through lives causing years of heartache and misery. Betrayal, whether real or imagined, is very hard to put right.

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Through Every Human Heart – Book Oxygen Review

Through Every Human Heart

Janice Brown

Published by Sandstone Press

226pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Feliks Berisovic reluctantly leaves his sequestered life in unnamed East European state to travel to Scotland on unofficial government business. Boris, Feliks’ influential and possibly criminal father, has ordered his estranged son to bring home Irina Arbinisi, the grand-daughter of the last Archduke, who is living and working in Glasgow. Newly released from its Russian yoke, his country is looking to the past to re-establish its identity. So begins Janice Brown’s second adult novel which is fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunications, leaving Feliks with increasingly farcical complications to what should be a simple mission.

Irina Arbinisi, a well-heeled exile from her East European homeland, runs a successful design company in the West End of Glasgow. One day she sends Dina, her assistant, to her well-appointed home to pick up a disc she needs for a client. Dina walks in on two men who claim to be plumbers fixing a problem which she finds strange but takes at face value. When she finds Irina’s beloved cat dead her scream rouses Feliks and another man, who are waiting outside for Irina, to burst in to save her. The four men fight and one plumber is stabbed while the other is knocked out. Dina is then bustled into a car by Feliks all the while insisting she is not Irina Arbinisi. Eventually Feliks believes her but cannot let her go until he has made contact with Irina. What follows is a madcap chase around Scotland involving Feliks and Dina, Irina and a professional criminal, the police, and a secret service agent.

Brown has created some interesting characters. Feliks, with his badly scarred face, is as damaged on the inside as he is outside giving him a sinister aura. He is against everything his father stands for but in the brave new world of independence are their aims as similar as their methods are different? Dina, originally from the Scottish islands, initially comes across as a bit of an airhead but as the pursuit becomes more dangerous she shows her mettle. Irina, on the other hand, is revealed as a vain woman with little regard for anyone but herself. The professional criminal, a man with many names, is pleasingly slippery, able to come up with a host of inventive lies in order to keep Irina on his side. The secret service agent seems to be helpful but just whose country is he serving?

Brown treads a fine line in mixing crime and comedy but her careful plotting means that one never overshadows the other. She also trusts her readers by introducing new characters with the merest of background information, only slowly filling in their backstory as the plot progresses. At times the novel feels a bit undercooked, as if could benefit from being opened out on a larger canvas with more room to develop the characters even further. Overall it is a pacey read with some amusing elements of comedy in amongst the drama and a hint of a happy ending for the troubled Feliks.