Molly Aitken’s “The Island Child” – atmospherically and emotionally-haunting magical realism

Read if you like:

Family dynamics, coming-of-age themes, the troubles of motherhood, superstition versus religion, nature as a force of its own, beautiful prose, dual timelines, emotional depth, tragedy

Triggering content:

Emotional and physical abuse, parental neglect, rape, infant death, suicidal thoughts

I owned this book for about a year before I picked it up to actually read it. Amazingly, I picked it up on its 1-year birthday – and proceeded to read it in one sitting. I can count on one hand the books I’ve ever read in one sitting. Two of them are Fahrenheit 451 and Rosemary’s Baby, so it’s fair to say that the Island Child is in solid company. But it’s also fair to say that The Island Child is a longer book than those other two, which perhaps makes it even solider than them. Especially when counting in the fact that it made me cry several times, yet I read on.

So, what kept me glued to the pages?

This book tackles some heavy-hitting (and potentially triggering!) topics related to motherhood. Although I’m not a mother myself, I still connected strongly with the main character and those topics. Perhaps because it’s as much a book about motherhood as it’s a book about childhood, and how those two are connected.

We follow Oona in two timelines – the past as a child, and the present as an adult. Throughout the book, these two timelines slowly merge and puts us in the present. As such, it’s a book that’s built largely around mystery as the reader gradually comes to understand Adult-Oona’s conflicts by discovering Child-Oona’s circumstances. And they are not nice circumstances.

Child-Oona grows up on the small Irish island of Inis (fictional) in a village of 50 people where the superstition of the sea is ripe, clashing with institutional religion. The village has few amenities of any sort, despite being the 1960s. Like children in general, the adventurous Child-Oona is fascinated by the superstition that shrouds the island, meaning she clashes constantly with her overly religious and punitive mother, who refuses to let Oona go to school and believes female biology is a sin. They clash to the point that their relationship is unsalvageable, and has made Adult-Oona believe she herself is unfit to be a mother, unable to properly show love for her own child, Joyce.

Oona escapes Inis as a young adult when she’s pregnant with Joyce and settles down in Canada. This also makes this a story about immigration in a time before the digitalized world, meaning immigration truly meant leaving your old life behind. While battling the trauma of emotional abuse from her mother and rape by a stranger, Oona struggles to fit into this more modern world to the point that she is unfit to care for her daughter. Indeed, she’s unfit to care for herself. As her daughter grows up, Oona hides her past from Joyce, ashamed and fearful of it. The book is centered on Oona coming to terms with that past when Joyce run away to Inis island for the answers Oona always refused giving her. 

Given the small cast (a natural consequence of the island setting), the plot was somewhat predictable, but Aitken still threw in enough minor plot twists that she planted doubt in me several times. In the end, however, it did turn out as I had predicted.

This is a story about tragedy. There’s death, rape, neglect, isolation, and much more. It’s just not a cuddly story. It doesn’t hold your hand. Rather, it opens your eyes. And, on the last few pages, the tragedy finally turns, leaving you with hope stirring in your stomach.

It’s a cathartic book, I’ll say, and it’s worth all the heartbreak when you reach that final page. So don’t let yourself be scared off, but do be aware of the triggers it may or may not have for you.


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