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Book club: Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

29 February 2024

Sarah Meyrick on Tish Delaney’s debut novel Before My Actual Heart Breaks

THE novel Before My Actual Heart Breaks is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Our narrator is Mary Rattigan, the youngest of seven children in a Republican family, who grows up on a farm on the outskirts of the fictional town of Carncloon, in County Tyrone.

The Troubles “rumble constantly overhead like a thunderstorm”, and there are troubles at home, too: Mary’s mother, Sadie, is cold and abusive, a bully who employs her Catholicism as a weapon. Her father is too weak to intervene. Here is Mary describing the farmhouse: “The width of the block wall was all that stood between us and death by exposure — and not because Mammy cared about us freezing in our beds — she cared only for health of our souls.

“To help us get ahead in the race to Heaven, she made time to clean the chapel. It was a privilege, we were a chore. When she had scrubbed us, every room in The Hill and the doorstep clean and cooked three decent meals, she cycled off with a light heart to do it all again for God. She polished the brass plaques, she mopped the marble under the altar, she swept the wooden floors and dusted the pews and she fed the priest whatever titbits he had a fancy for. She ripped the flowers from our garden and put them in vases under the dead-eyed statues. She looked like the perfect Catholic woman with her big family, her immaculate house, her devotion to the Church.”

But, for all the show that she puts on, Sadie is far from perfect. As Mary puts it, “I had sixteen years at The Hill. I learned to pray there and I learned to give up on prayers there. I learned how to keep my mouth shut, to not let a single thing show on my face though my insides churned and burned. I learned that I was nothing. I learned how to take a slap and to never forget that it was no one’s fault but mine that I’d needed it.”

Religious morality — and female virtue in particular — are highly policed. “I have to be a good Catholic because of the Troubles,” Mary says. Yet she dreams that she will one day “grow wings and fly” — specifically, emigrating to England or the United States, to build a better life for herself. Her Auntie Eileen — who escaped to New York, but came home with her tail between her legs after an all-too-brief adventure — encourages her in this, telling Mary that “one day” things will be different.

Tish Delaney

“Ah, Auntie Eileen and her one day, one day! If she has one fault, it’s her one day, one day! ‘One day’ has been hanging over my head like a noose for as long as I can remember and even now I can’t outrun it. She kept me so firmly focused on all the good things that would happen one day because so many bad things happened every day.”

Escape comes tantalisingly close. At school, Mary shows academic potential, and acquires a middle-class boyfriend who appears to be her ticket out of Carncloon. She and her best friend, Lizzie Magee, make plans, until those plans unravel when events take an unexpected turn on a school trip. Mary finds herself pregnant and unmarried at 16, and her ambitions thwarted. Her mother and the parish priest come up with a plan that leads to Mary’s being forced into a shotgun wedding with a man she barely knows.

Unsurprisingly, given its inauspicious beginnings, the union is turbulent. The novel explores this couple’s marriage in parallel with the political unrest of the period. Alongside bombs and bullets — the Omagh bombing of 1998 feels very close at hand — there is mistrust and miscommunication on the domestic front. Immovable lines are drawn; important conversations fail to happen. “Had we ever tried talking to each other, I might have known that he was the one person who could understand, the one who’d already been on that lonely, bloodied road,” Mary concludes — a sentiment that applies equally to her marriage and the conflict.

Before My Actual Heart Breaks is a debut novel. The author, Tish Delaney, a native of Northern Ireland, has written of her desire to show that the Troubles as a context to grow up in were simultaneously extreme and “simply wallpaper”. She writes: “We never knew anything different than the town being barricaded and people running around with guns. Everybody was living the same life — going to school, trying to meet boys.”

Delaney’s writing is fresh, raw, and frequently funny. Her descriptions of the landscape are elegiac, and her ear for dialogue is flawless. Her exploration of loneliness, regret, and the deep repercussions of trauma is exquisite. Above all, she writes poignantly of the human condition, creating an eloquent — if occasionally infuriating — narrator who will live long in the reader’s memory.

Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).

Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78609-098-0.

Listen to Sarah Meyrick in conversation with the author Tish Delaney in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


BEFORE MY ACTUAL HEART BREAKS — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. One reviewer called Before My Actual Heart Breaks as “the most exquisite love story”. Do you agree with this description?

  2. Mary finds herself a captive for much of the novel. Who or what do you regard as her captor?

  3. “If I could go back to being 16 again, I’d do things differently,” Mary says. “Everyone over the age of 40 feels like that,” Lizzie replies. Do you agree?

  4. Near the end of the book, a violent assault takes place. Did you feel this scene was plausible? What did it add to the story?

  5. Does the Church, as described in the book, offer anything positive?

  6. How did you feel about the ending? Was it what you expected?

 

IN OUR next Book Club on 5 April, we will print extra information about our next book, The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. It is published by HarperCollins at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-00-654370-1.

 

THE BOOK

The Beginning of Spring is a historical novel set in Moscow a few years before the Russian Revolution as political tensions mount. The story starts with the sudden unexplained departure of Frank Reid’s wife, Nellie. She boards a train heading west, leaving her husband and children behind. Frank moved to Moscow with his family to run his father’s print business. Unlike his rambunctious Russian neighbours, Frank is a repressed but honourable English gentleman — a man of reason. Frank is left to look after three small children, and, for him, the ensuing days are full of misadventure, poignancy, and wonder. This intriguing story, which doesn’t follow conventional plot lines, is set against the background of the great thaw in Moscow which heralds the arrival of spring.

 

THE AUTHOR

Granddaughter of Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, Bishop of Manchester, Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) was born into a brilliant and well-known family. Her father edited Punch, and her three accomplished uncles featured in her biographical book The Knox Brothers (1977). Her mother, Christina Knox (née Hicks), was the daughter of Edward Hicks, Bishop of Lincoln. Fitzgerald, a novelist, poet, and biographer, won the Booker Prize in 1979 for her novel Offshore. The Beginning of Spring is widely regarded as a masterpiece by literary critics. In 2008, The Times listed her among “the 50 greatest British writers since 1950”.

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