Fiction – paperback; John Murray; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
When Irishwoman Katie Taylor won an Olympic gold medal at London 2012, becoming the first ever Olympic female lightweight boxing champion, it was a seminal moment — not just for Irish sport but for women’s boxing in general. In Paula McGrath’s latest novel, A History of Running Away, women’s boxing (and Taylor’s achievement) is a core element of the storyline, which explores what it is to grow up and forge your own path under difficult circumstances.
Ambitious structure and wide scope
Set in 1980s Dublin and London, modern-day Ireland and the US, this novel has an ambitious structure. There are two main intertwined narratives — one in the first person, the other in the third person — which swing between 1982 and 2012. These follow two main characters: Rosemary, from rural Ireland who rebrands herself as Jasmine; and Ali, an American teen who’s on the run from the grandparents she didn’t know she had until her mother died.
There’s a third narrative thread that emerges towards the end of the novel; that of Jasmine’s mother, who tells the heartbreaking repercussion of having a child out-of-wedlock in 1960s Ireland.
The story is essentially about three generations of teenage girls, all trying to find their rightful place in the world. It’s hard-hitting in places — Jasmine works in a strip club when she runs away to London; Ali is raped by a member of the motorcycle gang with whom she’s hanging out; Jasmine’s mother, Margaret, is sent to live in a convent when she becomes pregnant and is forced to give up her child for adoption — and addresses some big themes common in Irish fiction, including alcoholism, emigration to England, and the Church meddling in young women’s affairs.
The novel is uneven in places. Ali’s storyline, for instances, goes unexpectedly quiet then comes alive again towards the latter part of the book, by which time I’d almost forgotten she existed.
But Jasmine’s story, the dominant of the two, is an intriguing and compelling one. Aged 17 she makes the decision to become a boxer. A black medical student from Kenya, who she meets by chance, agrees to be her trainer; a dangerous act given that it was illegal at the time for women to box in Ireland. Sadly, Jasmine never gets the chance to fight a legitimate bout because it’s 1983 when she becomes passionate about the sport, but in 2012, when she’s a maternity doctor caring for her mother who has Alzheimer’s, she follows the aforementioned Katie Taylor’s gold medal-winning bout with great delight — and a twinge of jealousy.
My favourite storyline, however, is Margaret’s, told in a frank and heartfelt voice, rich in Irish vernacular, which describes her teenage love affair and pregnancy, her painful stint with the nuns, marriage to her lover’s brother and then what happens when her lover returns from abroad. This on its own would make a terrifically absorbing novel. I wanted to hear more from this very Irish-sounding voice.
Coupled with the wide-ranging scope of the novel and its dramatic story-telling, it’s the superb characterisation that makes A History of Running Away such a good read. Even the subsidiary characters — the bullying Uncle Adrian; the “culchie” cousin with a secret gambling habit, also called Adrian; Deano, the good-looking neighbour; and George, the boxing coach — are well drawn, flesh-and-blood real and believable, all people I wanted to spend time with.
This isn’t a perfect novel but it’s vivid sense of time and place makes it an absorbing read and it’s focus on women’s sport adds an intriguing twist.
Earlier this week Paula McGrath took part in Triple Choice Tuesday. To see which three books she recommends, please visit this post.