Thereís a wee bit of the devil in every fairy story, and this novel isnít shy about sampling both when the protagonist, a journalist from New York City, returns to Ballymorris for his great-uncleís funeral in 2008. While there, he
plans to write an article about the miraculous visitation of the Blessed Virgin
Mary in 1988 to four local children. The four--Orla Gallagher, 16; her sister, Sila (like Sheila),
14; Declan Keveaney, 17; and Tess McGowan, 16--claim to have spoken with the Blessed Virgin in a grotto outside the village. Soon after, a healing--potentially a miracle--is attributed to the power of that visitation. It falls upon the local parish priest, Father Dowd, to interview the children thoroughly and separately to test the veracity of their experiences. All but one is still in Ballymorris, Declan having left for Australia never to return, except in his lonely motherís imagination.
Twenty-five years after his last visit, the protagonist has faded but tantalizing memories of a day at the beach with Tess, Sila, and his younger sister, Mallory. Tragically, Mallory
was killed in an accident soon after. He always thinks of Mallory in this place, the day she was so carefree and happy spending time with Sila, one of the later visionaries.
Though the ethereal Sila remains the emotional focus of his interest all these years later, the journalist applies himself to his research, pouring over transcripts of Father Dowdís interviews with the chosen four then asking his own questions as he approaches everyone involved but Declan. Surrounded by elderly relatives who meet nightly in a local pub, the young man is immersed in the intimacies of village life, where everyone knows the otherís business and family histories spool out for generations. Buoyed by the affection of his relatives and their friends, he is protected from the scorn of those who resent the intrusion of an American into their private affairs.
Though there is broad knowledge surrounding the apparitions and the rush of visitors in search of miracles that followed, few answers are forthcoming from the principals. Tess McGowan, now a lay sister, remains troubled over her conversations with the Blessed Mother, reluctant to talk about what transpired. Orla, now a harried mother and estranged from her younger sister, resists exhuming memories of those strange days. Only Sila, currently living in a home for the emotionally disturbed, speaks freely: ďShe was always different. Like some wild thing out of a fairy story.Ē Unfortunately, the still-fearless Sila is unreliable, her recollections mixed with fantasy, untethered
to reality. Mixing the present reality with memories of a past filled with the
lilting voices and joyous laughter of young women at play at the beach, the
adolescent protagonists morph into adults. Sila becomes the one person to whom the journalist turns in hope of easing his burden, a girl who once enjoyed her time with Mallory, imagined her as a best friend.
Though the enchanting Sila may embody the soul of a selkie--half human, half of the sea, a fairy creature with magical powers to transform herself between one and the other--she is not, though she fits the journalistís imagination in making peace with his own secrets. What De Angelis captures best is the joining of person and place, the religion that shapes a perception of the world, and the charming characters
who inhabit Ballymorris, the merging of the sacred and the profane under the direction of a demanding Church. The old days are not so far away, the mellifluous language familiar, memories long, intruders handicapped by an inability to hear Godís booming laughter at the foibles of mankind.