Published by Tinder Press
Publication date – 7 March 2019
Source – review copy
Raised by her mother and Maeve on Slanbeg, an island off the west coast of Ireland, Orpen has a childhood of love and stories by the fireside. But the stories grow darker, and the training begins. Ireland has been devoured by a ravening menace known as the skrake, and though Slanbeg is safe for now, the women must always be ready to run, or to fight.
When Maeve is bitten, Orpen is faced with a dilemma: kill Maeve before her transformation is complete, or try to get help. So Orpen sets off, with Maeve in a wheelbarrow and her dog at her side, in the hope of finding other survivors, and a cure. It is a journey that will test Orpen to her limits, on which she will learn who she really is, who she really loves, and how to imagine a future in a world that ended before she was born.
All Orpen has ever known is the island of Slanbeg, her mother Muireann and Maeve. She has been trained to fight the skrake, devourer of humans, once human themselves. But Orpen has never seen a skrake and is eager to leave the island. Then Maeve is bitten and Orpen must try to get help. On the journey Orpen discovers more about the world outside Slanbeg and about herself in the process.
This is a very easy to read book. The chapters are short and so the reader soon finds themselves well entrenched in the novel. The language has a special cadence to it. The novel is set in Ireland and there are hints of a melodic Irish lilt to the tone. There is the unique voice of Orpen. She has only ever spoken to two people in her life, three if you count her dog. She is used to the inflections and mannerisms of her mother and Maeve. When she encounters people she often comments that it is hard to understand them. There is also the impression that they don’t always understand her, though she comes to realise it may be how she speaks that is also confusing.
Orpen has been taught that men are bad. So when she encounters Cillian her first instinct is to flee. But as she interacts with him, the only man she has ever met, and the only man to feature in the story, she discovers that he is an exception to the rule her mother and Maeve imparted on her. Just as she also discovers, not all woman have been trained to fight, or even taught to read.
Not everything is tied up nicely in the story. The reader doesn’t find out how the skrake came to be, how long ago it all started or if it has spread to other countries. But then Orpen doesn’t find these things out. She is left with as many questions as we are.
I did get a bit distracted trying to work out how long ago the skrake appeared and the world seemed to end. I spent my time wondering why all the bodies Orpen came across in cars and the houses weren’t reduced to bone, if this apocalypse had occurred decades ago and whether her mother and Maeve’s talk of oven’s lit by gas and water from taps was from memory. My mind did wander occasionally but I read on and I’m glad I did. The story has a fitting ending, given Orpen lives in a situation that seems to have no end in sight.
Orpen has always been hidden by the shadow of Maeve. It is only on this journey that she can step out and realise who she actually is. She discovers a resilience she didn’t know she possessed and that not everything she had been taught, or believed, was the whole truth. Whilst she may think that her childhood ended at 7 and that she knew everything, her true learning began when she set off with the wheelbarrow.
This was an interesting read, I’ll look out for more from Sarah Davis-Goff in the future.
About the author
Sarah Davis-Goff’s writing has been published in the Irish Times, the Guardian and LitHub. This is her first novel. She was born and lives in Dublin.