Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin – A transforming friendship in childhood

Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin

The summer of 1966 was a difficult one for Claire O’Connell, as she reveals in this novel of a ten-year old’s view of a family in all its secrets. Her friendship with a boy was brief, but was to define her life, already complicated by her exile to a new home. This moving story has its elements of humour as Claire views adult conversation through the confused perspective of childhood, but also begins to guess at the meanings behind the hints and half revealed secrets. A book written with great sensitivity, this book succeeds in taking the reader back to the obsessions of childhood, the fear of nuns as teachers, the complex politics of a classroom, and most poignantly of all, the quiet dreams of a boy who comes to stand for the ill treatment meted out by an entire system. Gethin has succeeded in invoking the confusions of childhood, especially when so much is kept secret, and there are long held grievances.

From the first line “We were extremely annoying children” this novel launches into a child’s view of adult behaviour which seems strange, yet justified in all powerful adults. This is a novel which describes the settings brilliantly: the cottage with so few rooms looking out over a dangerous lake, the schoolroom with its allocated seats, the gap in a hedge which allows two children to meet and exchange stories of so many types. There is undoubted cruelty as a small child is tethered to a table, a sensitive boy has to learn to survive in a new school, and unimaginable horrors visited on children who are in institutions. This book is a vivid evocation of a friendship that provides a bright spot in a challenging life, and bravery of many kinds. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well written book.

The book opens with an argument. Claire’s mother is easily upset by Will, the eldest at twelve, Claire and little Louis, but it is when her husband enters the house wearing evidence of lipstick on his collar that “what was happening downstairs (became) a terribly scary thing”. Released from the bathroom where they are locked for their own safety, the three children are taken by their affable uncle Jack to his filthy room for the night, before being told to gather their things as they are going to visit Granny Connemara who lives in rural Ireland. Shocked at the older woman’s attitude to having to look after the children, there is much to get used to in a small cottage after life in Cardiff. Supposing that it is a temporary holiday the children begin to get used to their surroundings, but it is when they are told that they will have to stay and go to local schools that Claire begins to find that her former life is very different from an Irish school with nuns as teachers. It is only when she meets Emmet that she can truly be herself and share a little of his story.

This is a powerful and emotional read that deals with so much, not least the treatment of children in an Industrial School which is based on a real institution. It has much to say about difficult relationships and the power of the past in families, but even those issues are easier to deal with than the treatment of those without parents in institutions. The dialogue is superbly handled, given that characters speak English, Irish and Welsh on occasions.it is in the little details, the little talismans that the children keep that the touching desperation is made real, extending to the crusts and apple cores “for Buddy” as well as the love of a precious book. This is a lovely novel in many ways, beautifully written, and yet expressing the injustice meted out to vulnerable children. I recommend it to those who enjoy stories of childhood and families that do not conform to expectations, but most of all the transforming force of friendship.