The story is set during one week shortly before the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Three sisters, Helen, Sally and Kate relate and recollect their childhood during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. The catalyst for these recollections is the return of the eldest sister Kate, (who now refers to herself as Cate), who abruptly leaves London where she works as a successful journalist for a glossy magazine as an event has forced her to re-evaluate her life.
The book’s chapters alternate between the return of Cate to Ireland and the three sister’s recollections of their childhood. Cate’s life changing event is not that difficult to guess and strangely it is revealed rather early on the book so breaking any sense of tension regarding that particular plotline.
The sister’s childhood is almost idyllic. Their parents own a farm an hour’s drive from Derry. This distance from the cities and towns of Northern Ireland keeps the horrors of the troubles at arm’s length as it also must have felt to those on mainland Britain. The girl’s only connection to the Irish troubles was during their visits to towns like Antrim where they would witness preparations for the Orange Walk; Union Jacks hung out of windows, Orange arches with symbols of a compass, a set square and ladder painted brightly on them.
“And yet for all this they knew that their lives, so complete in themselves were off centre in relation to the society beyond those fields and houses”
However, this insular life soon changed when the British troops moved into Northern Ireland in 1969. With British Army checkpoints around their county and the subsequent visits to the sister’s farm by soldiers the troubles in its many nefarious guises had intruded into the sister’s childhood.
With the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday in 1972 the troubles also came to mainland Britain with the bombing of the Aldershot Headquarters by the IRA. I mention these events as I believe that the sister’s farm may be alluding to the British mainland during the same period of time of the 1960s and 1970s.
I found the story interesting but not fascinating. Each of the sister’s characters was used as clichéd ciphers for Ireland. The eldest sister Kate loves Ireland but needs to leave its sectarian bigotry and religious intractability and becomes a success which she wouldn’t have found if she had stayed in Ireland. The middle sister, Helen becomes a lawyer and defends terrorists even though a horrific experience has befallen her family. The third sister, Sally becomes a primary school teacher like her mother. She hates and loves Ireland in equal measure but stays due to her loyalty to her mother.
The dialogue is rather lumpen and incongruous. There were times when the dialogue did not ring true especially that spoken by the sisters.
Helen’s gay friend David is a superfluous character and seems only to have been shoe-horned into the story to possibly prove how open minded Helen is.
Of all the fictional books that have been written about the troubles, Cal by Bernard Maclaverty or Gerry Seymour’s Journeyman Tailor to name but a few, One by One in the Darkness in my opinion would find it difficult to a part of the any list of the top twenty books on the subject of Northern Ireland and its conflict.
Oringinally published at http://thevoyageout-bookreviews.blogspot.co.uk/