Johnny Hogan, a throwback with a tormented past, runs a ballroom in Belfast, Ireland. In a town devoid of very many outlets for those seeking recreation, the ballroom is a beacon - a place to unwind after a long day’s work, a place to meet people and, more importantly, a place to be seen. In a milieu populated by characters whose quotidian jobs are augmented by bleak weather and the hint of violence in a strife torn country never far away, Hogan’s ballroom is almost a necessity. In Sharon Owens’s wonderfully detailed narrative, Hogan’s ballroom is both a ray of hope for the tortured soul that he is, as well as the albatross that veers his life in strange directions.
It becomes evident from the start that Owens uses the ballroom as merely a drawing card to introduce the reader to a pageant of sharply etched characters who can charitably be called idiosyncratic. The protagonists in a traditional sense are the Winter sisters – the flighty, competitive Kate, and Shirley, the dreamy, free-spirited younger sister who is transformed into a joyful and responsible bride and mother in a delectable turn of events.
As Owens describes a myriad sequence of set pieces that affect both Kate and Shirley, she makes detours to connect various characters to the sisters. There is the lovelorn Kevin, Kate’s beau, and Declan, the dashing young man who woos Shirley off her feet easily enough but faces a major moral dilemma concerning his mother, Marion, and her former flame, Johnny Hogan. There are Eileen and James, Johnny’s grandparents, who watch with dismay Johnny’s plans to retire to America, only to have him come back to the ballroom under trying circumstances. There is the burglar, Lolly, whose penchant for ineptitude is both laughable and tragic.
As Owens weaves the vignettes connecting her characters in a charming thread of unrequited love, blown hopes, despair, and insurmountable joy, the reader is drawn intensely into their lives. We feel for Mr. Winters, Kate and Shirley’s father, whose ordinary, predictable life is frequently shattered by his daughters’ unpredictable behavior, and who resorts to sitting alone in a cold, empty garage to cope with his predicament. We empathize with Johnny, who agonizes over letting Marion, the love of his life, go away to become another man’s wife. Owens succeeds in her endeavor largely because of her empathy for the characters, who are uniformly multidimensional and, more importantly, plausible in their actions. Her keen sense of the ambience of Belfast, the cadences of everyday life and the rhythms of ordinary people going about their seemingly mundane lives, resonate throughout the novel and bring a palpable sense of verisimilitude to the narrative.
Sharon Owens’s debut novel, The Tea House on Mulberry Street, landed to positive reviews on this side of the Atlantic. She follows it up with a sophomore offering that is poignant in its storyline and peopled with sharply observed characters, the twists and turns of whose lives bind and hold the narrative in a startlingly original and interesting way.