Book Review: And The Birds Kept On Singing by Simon Bourke

AndTheBirdsKeptOnSingingAbout the Book

Pregnant at seventeen, Sinéad McLoughlin does the only thing she can; she runs away from home. She will go to England and put her child up for adoption. But when she lays eyes on it for the first time, lays eyes on him, she knows she can never let him go. Just one problem. He’s already been promised to someone else.  A tale of love and loss, remorse and redemption, And The Birds Kept On Singing tells two stories, both about the same boy. In one Sinéad keeps her son and returns home to her parents, to nineteen-eighties Ireland and life as a single mother. In the other she gives him away, to the Philliskirks, Malcolm and Margaret, knowing that they can give him the kind of life she never could.  As her son progresses through childhood and becomes a young man, Sinéad is forced to face the consequences of her decision. Did she do the right thing? Should she have kept him, or given him away? And will she spend the rest of her life regretting the choices she has made?

Format: ebook (642 pp.), paperback (596 pp.)       Published: 26th January 2017
Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

The author has created a powerful coming-of-age saga following the same boy through two different possible lives. In one, his teenage mother, Sinead, returns to Northern Ireland with her young son, Seán, to live back in the family home.   In the other, she gives him up for adoption and Jonathan becomes the longed-for child of Margaret and Malcolm, unable to have children of their own.  As the two different journeys play out, the author explores the various factors that may determine a person’s life chances: domestic environment, financial situation, educational opportunities, moral codes and so on.

The balance of the book is definitely towards the depiction of Seán’s life. As well as taking up the larger part of the book, his is the voice that feels really distinctive and authentic and his is the story that will certainly stay with this reader longest.  Childhood incidents, family upheaval, schoolboy friendships and sexual awakening are played out against a background of realistic domestic detail: family meals (who remembers crispy pancakes?), music, hanging out with your mates, watching football on the TV.

I felt I didn’t get inside Jonathan’s head in the quite the same way as I did Seán’s, possibly because Jonathan’s story is as much about his family as about him. His story is of a life not without challenges and obstacles but it is much less raw and dark than Seán’s story.

Despite their different upbringings – in different countries, with different accents and different family dynamics – the author manages to convey a sense that this is in essence the same boy in both strands of the story. Whether it’s as Seán or Jonathan, the boy demonstrates the same sense of humour, raw intelligence, ability to analyse situations and determination to overcome obstacles.

This book is not an easy read. (Readers should be aware that the book contains swearing and explicit descriptions of sex and of drug use.) At times, I found it uncomfortable reading. It is also quite bleak and very sad at some points. However, it is also powerful, moving and has an amazing sense of realism.

You can read my interview with Simon about his book and his writing journey here.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Gritty, realistic, powerful

SimonBourkeAbout the Author

Having spent the majority of his teens and twenties wondering just what would become of him, Simon chanced upon a hitherto unrealised ability to write. His dreams of super-stardom were almost immediately curtailed by a punishing, unexplained illness which took away three years of his life. He has since returned to his studies and couples them with a weekly column for local paper, the Limerick Post. If you were to ask him to tell you which career he’d prefer; journalist or novelist, he would smirk to himself and say that it’s impossible to make it as a novelist these days. He would then smirk some more and say that journalism is a dying industry.

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