I am ambivalent about horses and always have been. My daughter went through a horsey phase when we lived in Barbados and I spent more time than I cared to around the smell of poop and hay. The teacher was from Northern Ireland and when I started this novel she did the voiceovers in my head. I found myself needing more of the accent to get in to the story and found a video of the author reading her first chapter on YouTube. There is something about her Northern Irish accent that enhances the dialogue and makes it come alive. The way Sheena Wilkinson pronounces the names, names that are common enough in the States, helps to reinforce that this is an international novel from a culture that is similar but not the same as ours and it is the differences that make this novel a worthwhile read.
The two protagonists, Declan and Vicky, narrate this novel with the different narrations exemplifying and exploring class schisms in modern Northern Ireland. Though they are first cousins, Declan and Vicky seem to come from entirely different worlds. Declan’s world is comprised of a subpar school, an alcoholic mother, a run-down housing estate (housing project), violent peers, the Catholic church, and no future. Vicky, on the other hand, has everything great; love, approval, appreciation, and her own show horse. Their worlds collide when Declan stays with Vicky and her mom, Collette, after his mother tries to commit suicide. Though they grow up less than 5 miles from each other in the same city of Belfast, the cousins are really from two different countries.
Because this novel is written for Northern Irish children it is about everyday kinds of things, not the “Troubles.” The IRA is never mentioned nor is religion a topic other than as a way of distinguishing the poor (Catholic) from the wealthy (Prod or protestant). This also means that some of the vocabulary and cultural references may have to be explored to fully make sense of the story. For example, the different exams the two cousins are taking mark the disparity in their education and cultural capital. There is also the swearing, more frequent and more natural than in most American YA literature.
I really disliked the snobby and selfish Vicky and can’t wait to hear Gail’s take on her. While Declan is real- good, bad, and just plain confused- Vicky is beyond a mean girl. I found her impossible to feel for or to care about. The story belongs to Declan who is a fascinating character, one who you root for despite or maybe because of his failures. I found his “journey” to be believable and hopeful without an ounce of sentimentality. I said goodbye to Declan wishing I could check in on him in a couple of years. Luckily, I just discovered that there is a sequel to this novel that can be ordered from Amazon.uk.
So how weird is this? I finished reading Taking Flight where one of the main character’s name is Declan; I just read about another book whose main character is named Declan; and on the way home from work, I hear a news story about a boy named Declan! So I had to look up the name and found out it is of unknown origin, is ranked 177th in the United States and 98th in Scotland, but does not appear in Ireland’s top 100 (aka, Deaglán). I also found out St. Declan was a 5th C. missionary to Ireland. I like the name and I like the character in Sheena Wilkinson’s novel!
The other main character is Vicky; and like her name’s meaning, victory, Vicky is all about winning. I don’t particularly care much for Vicky—she’s a mean girl and even talks about herself in terms of the “normal me” and the “Nasty Me.” I’ve had my run-ins with mean girls and I have never gotten what makes them “tick.” What pleasure can they possibly get out of being mean? And that’s really the point, here; Vicky is a terribly unhappy person, in spite of everything she has. Declan refers to her as spoiled, unappreciative of anything and everything; when it comes to Declan, Nasty Me is in full control.
What I find particularly interesting about the intersection of these cousins, is how each react to their family dynamics. When Declan was a baby, his father was killed in an automobile accident; his beloved grandmother died a few years ago; and his mother drowns her sorrows in alcohol and has bad taste in men. In the beginning of the novel, his mother tries to take her own life and Declan blames himself—and has taken the blame and the burden of taking care of her since his grandmother’s death. They live in poverty and his mother is unaware of what there is to eat or if bills have been paid. On the other hand, Vicky lives in a “posh” part of town. Although her parents are divorced, she wants for nothing. She has her mother’s undivided attention during the week and every Friday, her father picks her up from school in his Mercedes. He has remarried and there is a new baby, but he has purchased an expensive jumping horse for her. While Declan survives in his world, Vicky basks in hers. Once Declan comes to stay with Vicky and her mother, things begin to change—something Vicky absolutely did not want to happen—ever.
Ever notice how mean people know exactly who to go for? Vicky is no exception. What really ticks me off is that Vicky knows what she is doing, she knows what Declan has just gone through, but that does not stop her; in fact, she puts in the knife and twists. Declan has tried to stay neutral, but when Vicky, in her snottiest way, tells him she is going to reveal his past to Cam, the woman who gives Vicky jumping lessons and has hired Declan to take care of the horses, stalls, and tack, he breaks. It’s an empty threat because Vicky knows if she does tell, Cam will think very poorly of her; but Declan believes Vicky will tell. He has allowed himself to care about his job—the horses and what Cam thinks about him, and Vicky knows this very well.
I do have a bit of a gripe in the way the story unfolds from this point. While I totally get what Declan does and why he does it and why, the ending of the novel seems a bit unrealistic. Let’s just say, Vicky has a change of heart and comes to Declan’s aid—nice, but out of character for Vicky. I’m with Melissa all the way on this one, I want Declan to come out of this okay; I want to know what happens to him next; and I’m very glad there is a sequel so I can find out!
P.S. I enjoyed the YouTube video, too.
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