Owl Song at Dawn Paperback – 1 Jul 2016
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' ...there is little mawkish or overtly sentimental about this quirky, moving novel...' --The Daily Mail
'Tender and unflinching, a beautifully observed novel about familial love and stoicism in the face of heartbreak.' --Carys Bray (Costa Prize-shortlisted author of A Song for Issy Bradley)
'I found the novel most poignant and tender in its depiction of disability, without a whiff of sentimentality... it crept under my skin and will stay there for a long time.' --Emma Henderson (Orange Prize-shortlisted author of Grace Williams Says it Loud)
'An extraordinary tale of kindness, empathy, love, and secrets... I read it in one sitting!' --Elizabeth L. Silver (author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton)
'Amazing: fierce, intelligent, compassionate and deeply moving... an important and very beautiful book.' --Edward Hogan (Desmond Elliot Prize-winning author of Blackmoor)
'Funny, heartbreaking and truly remarkable... the most deeply moving novel I have read in a long time.' --Susan Barker (New York Times best-selling author of The Incarnations)
'The writing is suffused from first to last with human warmth, empathic understanding... an important book - for our lives and consciences.' --Stevie Davies (Booker and Orange Prize-nominated author of The Element of Water)
'Remarkable... the story and the powerful nature of its telling raise it... to a place where its readers will find many ways into a world that might otherwise be closed to them... a huge achievement.' --William Horwood (author of Skallagrigg)
'Unmissable. A beautiful, brave and important novel, which joyfully subverts the prejudices and assumptions of our youth-obsessed, disability-phobic society... Fabulously readable and thought-provoking.' --Sarah Butler (author of Ten Things I've Learnt About Love)
'A delight: beautifully observed, deeply felt and utterly compelling. Sweeney writes with great humour, with wisdom, and with devastating empathy.' --Mary Volumer (author of Reliance, Illinois)
'Fresh, poignant and unlike anything else. Written with a deceptively light touch, this is a novel full of charm.' --Jill Dawson (Whitbread and Orange Prize-shortlisted author of Fred & Edie)
'An ambitious and emotional debut worthy of comparison with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Olive Kitteridge in its uncompromising and tender exploration of a life lost to prejudice and restored by love.' --Antonia Honeywell (author of The Ship)
'An original, brave and tender first novel.' --Maggie Gee (Orange Prize-shortlisted author of The White Family)
About the Author
Emma Claire Sweeney has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish.
She teaches creative writing at New York University in London; co-runs SomethingRhymed.com – a website on female literary friendship; and publishes features and pieces on disability for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and The Times.
Owl Song at Dawn is inspired by her sister, who has autism.
Visit Emma at emmaclairesweeney.com or on Twitter @emmacsweeney
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Maeve has been running Sea View Lodge since her mother died when she was fairly young and over the years the guest house has come to cater for visitors with disabilities and learning difficulties. Now she is an old lady and the past has come calling in the form of Vince, once a close friend.
Maeve narrates the tale as though she is speaking to Edie, her disabled twin who died a long time ago. Edie's condition is never named - beyond the official reports that label her 'severely subnormal'. Slowly we learn what happened in the past to both Edie and Maeve and also their parents as the story flits between past and present.
Maeve is a fabulous character - feisty and strong but also pigheaded and prone to bad decisions. The book is populated with a strong supporting cast - many of whom could easily be a novel in their own right. It's a fabulous read and you'll go a long way before you meet another pair of characters as delightful as Len and Steph.
With her parents gone Maeve is now struggling but has great friends as staff and soon welcomes an old love, Vince to the hotel, where more of Maeve's life is revealed.
The early childhood times where 'subnormality' was the norm for those with disabilities, shows us how badly they were treated by the system and how Maeve's family, at all costs, tried to keep Edie within the home.
Looking back at loneliness, mistakes and conceptions about those with disabilities in the 1950s is shown in contrast to how the integration of everyone is now more inclusive - but still with moral/ethical prejudices.
As someone who worked in the early '80s when the term subnormality was still spoken of as we then used mental handicap, my abiding thought is we should all forget about labels and just use the name of the person as an individual and perhaps then we would all get along so much better.
The author has a family member with disabilities and this shows in the care and concern of the writing. Not what I expected when I read about the novel but it proved to be a little gem.
A lovely book, I hope it is widely read, I hope it helps with tolerance and a respect for the army of unpaid, unsupported carers in our communities.
Having heard a bit about it before reading it, I expected the story to mainly focus on the shocking way society has treated those with learning disabilities. Owl Song at Dawn does that, brilliantly. What was unexpected was the sheer volume of love which spills out of this book, the quiet, aching sadness at its heart and the most wonderful moments of pure joy.
Owl Song at Dawn is uncompromising and unsentimental but also clever, and full to the brim with compassion. I can't remember the last time I read a book which so brilliantly captured guilt and longing - both of which are skillfully suffused throughout Maeve's story. I enjoyed the novel's careful structuring, with the many layers of the story carefully unfolding until we reach its crisis point. Along the way you find yourself wishing with everything you've got that the inevitable will not happen, and when it does - caused by a small moment of inattention - its catastrophic consequences are heart-stopping.
And its heart-stopping because you are rooting for Maeve, Edie and their parents from the opening pages of the novel - testament to Sweeney's skill in creating such real, compelling characters who are warm, kind, flawed. The writing is delicate and evocative:
He will think of me at...college and he will remember this night when we sat side by side at the end of the stone jetty, the sea beneath our dangling feet, the stars above our heads melting in the sky.
Something about the little girl, all soft and warm and holding me firm - something about all this made me feel suddenly and extraordinarily sad.
A breeze moves through our attic room, rippling across the fabric of our new outfits, which still hang side by side in our wardrobe. Your peach blouse rubs against my blue silk dress and then they swing apart. I stare at them for a moment - the way they sway together and then drift apart - but then I close the wardrobe doors.
In a note at the end of the novel, Sweeney outlines her inspiration for the novel and how she wanted to offer Maeve 'one last chance to heal'. I was just about holding it together until then, but that line totally finished me off and I had to have a bit of a cry* and a lie-down before facing the world once more.
Owl Song at Dawn is in many ways, the ultimate love story - the fierce love of family, for your sibling, the pain of unrequited love, love lost and (possibly) regained. It's beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Go buy it immediately.