Book Review: The Walking People – Mary Beth Keane

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

About The Book

Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in west Ireland, until she found herself on a ship bound for New York, with her sister, Johanna, and a boy named Michael Ward, a son of itinerant tinsmiths.

Despite her family’s cynicism, Greta discovers that in America she can fall in love, earn a living, and build a life.

She longs to return to show her family what she has made of herself, but at risk of revealing a secret about her past to her children, decides to keep her new life separate, torn from the people she is closest to.

Decades later, she discovers that her children, with the best of intentions, have conspired to unite the worlds she has kept apart.

And though the Ireland of her memory may bear little resemblance to that of present day, she fears it is still possible to lose it all . .

My Review

Back in 2019 I read the absolutely wonderful Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and so when I spotted that Keane’s debut novel, The Walking People was being published by Michael Joseph I was eager to read it. This novel is the sort of thing I really love, historical fiction which spans decades, has intricate storytelling and real human stories.

Set in 1950s rural Ireland, it follows the Cahill family who live in a small village at the edge of a small town. Their cottage sits between the Atlantic and a river, from where they poach salmon from under the nose of their neighbour. They’re a poor family of three boys who help their father with their farm and his midnight poaching trips, and two girls who help with housework and occasionally attend school. The youngest, Greta, is nicknamed Goose by her family due to the way she walks and carries herself. She is a curious child, the baby of the family, mocked by those who love her and pest to her older sister, Johanna, who she adores but who often leads her astray.

When some travellers descend on the nearby town, Johanna is transfixed by them and by the lives they lead. She is particularly enthralled with the Ward family and their son Michael, who seems, to Johanna, to have led a glamorous life as not only has he been all round Ireland but he has been to England too. He is a symbol of a different sort of future and Johanna can’t resist the thought of it.

The local town has seen an exodus of Irish families who have moved to America to start life afresh, promising to return once they have themselves on their feet and asking their neighbours to keep an eye on their properties back home in the meantime. But as the letters from America get fewer and far between the families left behind realise that the lure of America is strong. It certainly is for Johanna who sees a life there as being her destiny, and she plots to leave for the bright lights of New York. What she doesn’t quite plan for is Greta tagging along with her and Michael, making the duo a threesome.

This is an insightful novel about immigration, family, loyalty and love. Taking us from the 1950s almost to the present day it examines a myriad of themes against a backdrop of rural Ireland and glitzy New York. I didn’t know much about the immigration of the Irish to America beyond bits and pieces I had picked up over the years and I certainly wasn’t aware of the level of poverty in some places as recently as the 1950s. It makes for brutal reading at times and my heart ached for the trio who leave a quiet, sleepy place to live in New York, somewhere where you either sink or swim.

At its heart though, this is a book about family and the lengths you will go to for those you love. There are many instances in this book of the small and big things the characters do for one another, and the ways they can hurt one another. Keane has such a skilful way of writing about human nature and navigates complicated relationships and decisions in a delicate way. Like Ask Again, Yes, there is an event at the centre of the novel around which everything else orbits and Keane uses it to explore the notion of family, of duty and of responsibility.

It makes for hugely affecting reading. Setting the book over decades allows the themes to be fully explored whilst giving them room to breathe. It is heartbreaking and difficult to read in places (I did have a little weep once or twice) but is incredibly rewarding and is a sweeping novel wide in scope. I fell in love with Greta, a young sixteen year old who finds herself in a situation she never envisaged for herself and she will stay with me for quite some time. If expansive historical fiction is your thing then The Walking People could be the book for you.

Where You Can Buy It

My thanks to Michael Joseph for supplying me with a copy of the book via Netgalley.

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane is out now in both hardcover and ebook.

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