The Shining Fragments by Robin Blackburn McBride

Review published on October 12, 2018.

This is a wonderful family saga about the Irish who emigrated to Canada, and it focuses on young Joseph Conlon between the years 1882 and 1904.

Conlon leaves Ulster as a child with his sister and mother planning to meet Uncle Seamus, who has already sailed to Canada and extolled its virtues, ” Montreal is a second Ireland … so many Irish, they say, you’ll think you haven’t left Derry”. But tragedy strikes on the voyage and when a helpful woman, Old Ciara, takes Colleen under her care Joseph is left abandoned in Toronto station.

He is taken to be cared for by the Sisters of Mercy at a Catholic orphanage ‘Sunnyside’ and I did think – ‘oh, here we are again’ great cruelty and religious fervour. However, although Joseph does get the cane and at times with others gets into real scrapes (somewhat like the Artful Dodger), the nuns do genuinely look after the children in their care.

Joseph meets older girl, Deary Avery, and their relationship forms a main thread of the novel because of its emotions, losses, humour and drama. Joseph befriends one eyed Tim (a great character) and, after Deary disappears from his life, Joseph focuses on jobs, getting money and often acts beyond his age drinking, gambling (which he’s been taught on the ship) and spending time with prostitutes.

But underneath we are aware of the deep vulnerability of Joseph, his search for love and affection and his ability to adapt – much as we see described the city of Toronto changing. The author describes well the changes to factories from the 1887 Toronto Industrial Fair through the need for Trade Unions to stop bad practices that cause injury and sometimes death for the workers.

Friendships and loves made and are often lost a big feature of the novel but they are explained in a believable way by the author.

One of the lovely threads is the tales Joseph brings to Canada of Irish folklore and tales of religion, kings and beasts, which entrance all who hear him.

Joseph is also a talented artist and when he finally finds his ideal job in a glass making factory the whole story takes on a fascinating turn.

Sad but uplifting and sharp in its detail, I found this novel very readable. I have relations in Canada who may be more aware of this author and I would be keen to share this with them alongside other readers and book groups.

Philipa Coughlan 4/4

The Shining Fragments by Robin Blackburn McBride
Guernica Editions 9781771832663 pbk Oct 2018

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