Molly Aitken who is being tipped for big things on the strength of her massive debut novel, The Island Child. Inspired by ancient myth, the story of a mother and daughter is all too human. Molly spoke to David Hennessy about what inspired her rich novel and how she can write about upsetting subject matter.
Molly Aitken’s debut novel, The Island Child has marked her out as a new Irish literary star. The haunting first novel tells the story of Oona who grows up on an imagined Irish island rich in myth and superstition. Oona grows to hate her overprotective mother and resolves to one day make it off that rock. When a stranger lands on the shore, Oona escapes with him. However, years later Oona’s own daughter Joyce runs away and Oona tracks her back to the island and the childhood she tried to forget.
Molly told The Irish World: “Yeah, you never know when you write something how people are going to take it but It’s been really, really lovely and just amazing as well how people back home in Ireland have received it. I think that’s what meant the most to me. The reviews have been so lovely and the book shops have really stocked it there. It means a lot.”
Molly was inspired to write the story after reading two classics, one Irish and one ancient Greek, while studying literature and classics at NUIG, Galway.
“It came from lots of different places and everything came together. I think this first came from reading two different things at the same time. I read JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea. It’s just beautiful and then also at the same time I read one of the books in the Odyssey where a stranger is washed up on the shore of an island.
“I was like, ‘Oh what would happen if a guy washed up on a shore of an Irish island?” And so that was initially where it came from but actually the story turned out quite different. I became much more interested in the girl and her relationship with her mother and then her relationship with her child.
“I don’t really quite know where a story’s going. It’s about the characters, letting them talk and listening to them and following them. Sometimes they do things I don’t expect but that’s the fun part of it.”
The novel moves between Oona’s childhood on Inis and her life as an adult in Canada, where she still carries the legacy of her island past, and the complex relationships from that time.
And it was while she was studying a masters in creative writing at Bath Spa University, where her tutors included the novelist Fay Weldon, that Molly started the novel with her bestselling tutor’s advice.
“I was really lucky with that. Fay Weldon was incredibly helpful. She read the book in its first draft and really helped guide me. When I first started writing it, the older Oona was much older, she was in her 70s and faye said to me, ‘Don’t write about an older woman, nobody wants to read about an older woman’.
“She was really brilliant and I was very lucky to have her help.
“I think it was James Joyce who spoke about being outside of your own home and only then, when you have a bit of perspective, can you write about it. I think when I was in Galway and visiting the Aran Islands, I didn’t really feel ready to write about it. Then when I was outside of Ireland, I misssed home and missed the people and the landscape even though Bath is beautiful. Missing home, I wrote about Oona and her island to create it for myself.”
The story centres around Oona and her inability to connect with her mother and then her own daughter.
Although her mother wants to protect Oona, Oona feels more like a prisoner such is the breakdown in the family’s communication. Molly says readers have told her they have recognised the need to talk about important family issues after reading it.
“I’ve been lucky because I have been able to do my book tour. Lots of women have been coming up to me but also men which has been surprising me because I think of it as quite a feminine story but men are really responding to it well.
“A lot of people have things within their own families, ‘We never really talk about it’. But actually they said they started to talk to their partners or family members about things that maybe they wouldn’t have before because of reading the book. That’s been incredible.
“I think one of the messages of the book is that telling your story and speaking can be healing so that’s been beautiful.
“I think that might be an Irish thing, we keep a lot of stuff to ourselves. My husband is from Brazil and his family isn’t like that at all. They share everything. The difference between the two families is drastic.
“I wonder if that’s to do with Catholicism as well, making people feel more guility about things. They keep it to themselves.”
The story deals with issues as serious as infant death and sexual assault which is sometimes even more heartbreaking for the reader by being seen through the uncomprehending and innocent eyes of a child.
“Writing about trauma is something that in the moment is quite difficult because I feel like I have to feel what my characters are feeling. But I’m one of those people who can push things aside quite easily. After I’ve written, I can forget about it, go about my day, make coffee. I think that’s part of my personality. I’m quick to move on and I don’t over labour things so I think that’s why I can write about quite difficult or traumatic things, because it doesn’t cause me any trauma. In the moment it is difficult.
“But women have come up to me and said it meant a lot to them, women who have experienced it. That has been really touching and really why I wrote it.
“I think it’s something people don’t feel comfortable talking about which is completely understandable. I think it’s something important to be more open about because women feel a lot of guilt about it.”
Another inspiration was revisiting the recently deceased Eavan Boland’s poem, The Pomegranate, which she had studied at school. It interweaves classical myth and personal story as it explores the parent-child dynamic.
“I love her work and particularly that poem. I used to re-read that poem and I still do every year.
“The book just wasn’t working for a while and then I read that poem and I realised it was doing the same kind of thing I was trying to do, it was talking about a mother and daughter and how your perspective is different when you’re a mother and a daughter. How you can tell your daughter things or you can keep them to yourself. That was like a guide for me and then suddenly everything started clicking into place and the book started to work. I’ll always be grateful.”
The Island Child by Molly Aitken is out now on Canongate Books.