We’re in rural Ireland; the small town of Balmallen, County Mayo. It’s 2017 – or we think it is, but later it turns out that at times we were in the 1990s. Beyond that, things are less certain.
There are three narrators: Olive, Hazel and Laurel. Olive and Hazel divide 30 or so chapters between them, while Laurel contributes nine. Olive lives in a secure family with an affectionate poetry professor father who strides about the house declaiming favourite poets (mostly male, as his feminist daughter notes). He’s lovingly tolerated by her mother who occasionally utters sentences which come from nowhere, but sound ominous; and then she pretends she’s said something else. Olive’s best friend is Rose – they’re both around 17. Hazel’s domestic set-up is far less secure. She and Rowan, her twin brother, and their lifelong friend Ivy, are squatting in ‘a ghost housing estate’. Over their lifetimes, the twins have been abandoned repeatedly by their mother when in hopeless pursuit of her husband who treats her wretchedly. Now it’s Hazel and Rowan who have abandoned their parents, living from hand-to-mouth – a bit of bar work, a spot of shoplifting. Before long, their lives become entwined with Olive and Rose. Laurel’s chapters stand apart for most of the novel, reporting a sequence of intense experiences with her friends Ash and Holly; all three are strongly drawn to Jude, a strange and beautiful boy who materialises only in the nearby forest. Alert BfK readers will by now have spotted a tree motif linking these names. References to the trees recur in the ingredients of a powerful spell – a ‘Calling for the Lost to be Found’ – written in an ancient book which falls into the hands of the young people at different points throughout the plot. The spell also requires ‘a glass bottle filled with the waters of Lethe’ – though poteen will do – and human blood.
I should come clean. So dense is the plot that I cannot offer here more than a suggestion of the wild, whirling magic which crowds this unique novel. In a Q & A afterword, Moira Fowley-Doyle writes: ‘I’ve loved magic realism since before I knew what it was. I read everything by David Almond as a child and the way he melded fact and fantasy felt truer to life to me than ordinary contemporary fiction’. In Balmallen, we inhabit the everyday world of school and teenage preoccupations, but we’re also flung into magical events where conventions of logic, time and place are repeatedly broken. Only in the closing chapters do some underpinning ‘rules’ emerge to clarify what we’ve witnessed. My notes, made during a necessary second reading, include spidergrams of how people connect, several lists, including what’s Lost-and-Found, and reminders about who-is-who since some names turn out to be nicknames and emerge some twenty years later in their conventional forms.
The novel begins and ends with losing and finding; the Lost-and-Found list includes a pair of sunglasses, a charm bracelet, a St Anthony medal, a hair clip, a couple of tarnished teaspoons, and a few trinkets; but also someone’s virginity, innocence, and even a couple of boys who are lost but never found. There’s frequent teenage drinking (with consequences); the list here includes Tesco Value Vodka, Diet Coke, a fine single malt and quantities of poteen, distilled by Mags Maguire, a tough, seemingly ageless wise woman who runs the local pub, shows up at key moments but gives little away since she’s a woman of few words, though she’s probably the only one who understands what on earth is going on. There’s also swift attraction and subsequent sex, both hetero and gay, described in some detail with sensitivity and power. Storms rage to mirror action and wolves howl to echo magic at its most powerful.
That’s my attempt to suggest the nature of the novel. One reason for what may seem chaotic is that a reader needs to keep track of the multiple storylines, and that’s not helped by the narrative voices of Olive, Hazel and Laurel being so similar. I confess to both irritation and confusion during my first reading (but then I was also initially irritated by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom Fowley-Doyle much admires). YA readers might think the book anything from revelatory to alienating. Some might see it as one of the most exciting, original novels they’ve ever read and begin re-reading at once. Others may never finish it. The book could well win awards for its wild power and invention, its accounts of adolescent intensity. Adults interested in the YA field should not ignore it.