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This heartbreaking novel takes place in Ireland from 1976-1981, as a young boy, Michael McDonagh, grows up in a harsh land, his father gone for long periods in America. But there are rumors connecting Padraig McDonagh and a married woman, Padraig's wife bearing the sly gossip of neighbors. As a young boy, Michael both loves and fears his father's power and intensity, the temper that turns so easily physical; yet their bond is deep, the son conscious of Padraig's struggles to survive. When Padraig returns again to America, in search of work, his wife, Moira, slowly unravels, her tentative hold on normalcy slipping with each passing night. Michael and Molly don't know how to help their mother, sensing that whatever is wrong cannot be easily fixed. Michael remembers a time "before her illness and his America had taken them away from each other."
Molly and Michael have no time for childhood, agonizing as their mother loses touch with reality, brother and sister forced to mature and care for themselves, unprotected and vulnerable. When Padraig's twin dies, Michael's father returns for his brother's funeral. Spending those few days together, Michael learns the dimensions of the man, the depth of his love, time he will come to treasure when his father leaves again. Michael worries constantly about Moira, insecurities bred by her illness forcing him to confront an adult world for which he is ill-prepared: "the ghost that roamed the countryside every night...walking the fog-shrouded fields...looking for something that in the light of day was lost and forgotten, was out mother".
For a short time, Michael enjoys a romantic tryst with a local girl, Cait Delacey, an experience that intimates the experiences that await in adulthood. With Cait, Michael escapes from the harsh realities of his days, constructing a secret place for their meetings, a hideaway that eventually unveils the harshest betrayal of his young life. His time with Cait proves transitory, finally tainted by the intrusion of the world and the Troubles that have affected the country for years. Everything Michael has believed, everyone he has trusted, all will be turned upside-down by events over which he has no control.
This close-knit society is riddled with the contradictions of religion and superstition, a common confusion in the land of myths, every explanation of the natural world tainted with the suggestion of a curse. Hardscrabble lives lead to such thoughts, the possibility that something larger-than-life is at work. The author's descriptions of the paucity that strangles the family's joy, awakens an awareness of the very real suffering that goes hand in hand with poverty, never enough to eat, no credit, threadbare clothing, cold seeping in to leach the small bit of warmth, images exacerbated by an unforgiving landscape,In the Province of Saints is defined by its lyrical prose: "He jumped easily to the ground, landing like a thin wiry cat, and threw the pitchfork powerfully into the base of the haycock where it quivered, rooted to the ground."
The scope of human emotions against the dramatic background of the Irish countryside is exceptional, page after page of stunning descriptions, evoking a harsh present and mythic history. O'Malley traces the symbiotic relationship of religion and congregants caught in the rituals and moral confines of the Catholic Church, the petty grievances between neighbors, ancient grudges harbored for generations and a profound understanding of the commitment this place demands. Michael is changed by his burdens, the Troubles, insidious poverty, Padraig's distance in America, Moira's creeping illness, Cait's innuendoes about his father's past, a shapeless future and a bitter truth, crossing painfully from childhood to adolescence. Luan Gaines/2005.