Source: Review copy
Publication: 27th February 2020 from Viper Books
THEY DID IT TO THEMSELVES
BUT SOMEONE WAS WATCHING
The Macnamara sisters hadn’t been seen for months before anyone noticed. It was Father Timoney who finally broke down the door, who saw what had become of them. Berenice was sitting in her armchair, surrounded by religious tracts. Rosaleen had crawled under her own bed, her face frozen in terror. Both had starved themselves to death.
Francesca Macnamara returns to Dublin after decades in the US, to find her family in ruins. Meanwhile, Detectives Vincent Swan and Gina Considine are convinced that there is more to the deaths than suicide. Because what little evidence there is, shows that someone was watching the sisters die…
Nicola White’s A Famished Heart transports us back to 1980’s Dublin; a place where sexism is rife, there were such things as starlets and computing science was all about flashing cursors and green screens.
The sense of time and place in this novel plays a central part in the success of this book. White creates an atmosphere that conveys the time so well, evoking not just the time and place but also a certain kind of small minded thinking that pervades some of the characters in this book and makes it resonate.
Francesca Macnamara is a little down on her luck. An actress who came to New York to strike it lucky after making a bit of a name for herself in her home city of Dublin, she is now on the edge of grifting to get through the week.
Father Timoney is discovering that he should have asked a lot more questions before he decided to come to Dublin to do good works. He’s not living where he thought he would be; his housekeeper isn’t up to the job and the church he looks after is an ugly forbidding place.
Then, one day, he discovers the dead bodies of Berenice and Rosaleen Macnamara. It is a gruesome find for the elderly sisters have quite clearly starved to death in their own home.
DI Vincent Swan, himself under a bit of a cloud after accusations of brutality from a prisoner in the Garda’s custody, begins an investigation. Forensics can tell how these women died, but not whether there was anything suspicious or criminal about their deaths. Vincent is not at all convinced that these were self-contained though horrible suicides. He’s sure there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Francesca returns to Dublin to bury her sisters and to find out whether there’s an inheritance. There she offers a place to stay to her niece, a young woman named Madeleine Moone, only to find that Madeleine disappears on her.
Nicola White’s book is an investigation of crime, but it is much more a study of the principal characters, their lives and relationships and how they react to each other in a time of serious stress. White’s novel puts these characters under the microscope and watches how they interact.
In terms of investigative technique, the reader will find sufficient to occupy their time, but in terms of developing and understanding characters; of getting to the heart of motivations and defining inner struggles, this is a finely written book that achieves a great deal.
These are intense and riveting characters, beautifully drawn and finely nuanced by White. The deaths provide a dark theological backdrop in which to observe and understand not only the characters but the way in which the church works.
As Swan doggedly pursues his case he comes across some extraordinary characters, helped by a bright but impressionable new D.C. Gina Considine.
Verdict: This is not a fast paced police procedural, but a slower, more thoughtful and introspective book that looks at the power of the Church and the position of women across the social and economic divide. A fascinating study with a criminal heart that I really enjoyed getting immersed in.
Nicola White won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award in 2008 and in 2012 was Leverhulme Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. Her novel The Rosary Garden won the Dundee International Book Prize, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, and selected as one of the four best debuts by Val McDermid at Harrogate. She grew up in Dublin and New York, and now lives in the Scottish Highlands.