The Letter Home by Rachael English – Women in search of the truth – and survival

The Letter Home by Rachael English

This is the story of young women. All three of them are concerned with events which are history for two, and actual life experience for one. It is about chasing memories, evidence, gaps in lives, and survival. There are three stories running in parallel throughout this gripping novel, the stories of three women at close quarters, all at turning points in their lives. The writing is empathetic, showing how well the author simultaneously deals with two women living and discovering the truth in 2019, though from different backgrounds, as well as a third in abject poverty. This is such a well written narrative of women’s perspective on life in the past, dealing with the challenging present, and hoping for a more successful future. A subtly written novel in some senses, as the obvious problems of the past compare with the different difficulties of the present. This is an engaging book that I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.   

The first section is set in April 2019 and concerns Jessie Daly. She is travelling to County Clare in Ireland, away from Dublin where she has been working and living as a journalist. She has had challenges in her recent past, and made a series of very public mistakes on late night television when she was unprepared and was drinking. After the social media savages her, she is shown returning home in ignomy. Her more settled sister and her caring parents are shocked, especially when revelations of further problems emerge. The saving in the situation for Jessie is being asked to help with some research into a local woman who was among the first to die in the Famine in Ireland in the mid 1840s. Sometimes known as the potato famine, the life and death shortage of the most basic food for the poorest was caused by a blight on the crop which they depended on. At the same time in Boston, America, Kaitlin Wilson is an outwardly successful woman who has an excellent career with a law firm and a long term partner. When her brother gets a job with a dubious political group which watches immigration, she feels compelled to discover more about her own relatives who travelled from Ireland. Not everyone around her supports her investigation.

The most powerful section of the book concerns the story of Bridget, who in the 1840s is part of a poor Irish family. The loss of her father to the sea makes life a struggle, but the failure of the potatoes they depended on makes her situation so much worse. When she loses others from desperate need, she is reduced to scraping a tiny bit of food for her daughter and herself. Her decisions will have a huge effect on more than one life, and reveal much to those who search for the truth in later years. 

This is a moving book which is in part based on true events. The settings are well established in each case, and especially in Bridget’s tragic circumstances. There is a lot of research behind this story, but it is never allowed to interrupt or dominate the narrative. This is a sensitively written and strongly felt book which drew me into the situations of the women. It is a strong and powerful novel, which I recommend for those interested not only in the difficulties faced by people in the nineteenth century, but also the motives for and the process of discovering the sometimes harsh details of a family’s past.