The Forgotten Secret by Kathleen McGurl
Genre: Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
Read: 27th February 2019
(release date: 1st March 2019)
★★★★ 4.5 stars
“You can research ancestry all you like, but how people actually felt and what they thought is lost in the mists of time.”
THE FORGOTTEN SECRET is the first book I've read by Kathleen McGurl and it won't be my last. It is difficult to place this in just one genre as it has so many facets to it. It's a touch of women's fiction, a touch of mystery and a wonderfully historical!
I must say I LOVE dual timeline stories as it brings to life two stories into one. And this one is no different. Centreing around two different women from two different eras, it's beautiful, poignant and a little sad.
The story begins with Mary-Ellen O'Brien in 1919, at the height of the Irish war for independence. I know little of its history and to be honest it doesn't really interest me but it makes a fitting backdrop for Ellen's story. At 18 she has just begun her first job as an upstairs maid at Carlton House, known locally as "the big house". She works for Madame Carlton who is both friendly an sympathetic, and Ellen soon discovers she's an important figure in the fight for Ireland's independence. Ellen's childhood friend Jimmy Gallagher has also just returned from boarding school and together he and Ellen discover first love.
Amidst the sweet joyful moments of first love, however, is the war for Ireland's independence, and sadly for her, Jimmy has chosen to fight for the cause which lay close to his heart. Closer, it seems, than Ellen does. As I don't condone war in any shape or form I fail to see how the bloodshed of innocent people could bring peace and resolution to anyone. However, Jimmy feels fiercely about Ireland's independence and signs up to become a "volunteer". The only saving grace is that Madame Carlton is also a volunteer and often keeps Ellen updated, passing notes secretly between the two.
But just when life seems to as sweet as ever, unforeseen circumstances hit sending Ellen off to the Merciful Sisters in Dublin. Though I know little of Ireland's history, I do know a little of the notorious Magdalene Laundries of the early to mid-20th century. Set up for "fallen women" the Magdalene laundries also took in girls who misbehaved or were homeless. Many had illegitimate children there, and often the children either died mysteriously and were buried in the grounds or secretly adopted unbeknownst to the mothers. Conditions were harsh and almost unlivable. How anyone could send their child there is beyond me!
Fast forward 90 years we meet Clare in 2016, married to a manipulative controlling husband for 25 years and with two beautiful grown sons. Clare finds herself with a newfound independence when she inherits a dilapidated cottage farmstead from an uncle in Ireland. With this and the money also bequeathed to her, Clare suddenly decides to leave her husband Paul when she had shown no "backbone" to stand up to him before. How she suddenly did after 25 years of conditioning under his manipulation and control, I've no idea. However, despite this I still found myself rooting for her and her independence.
So Clare packs up her belongings and her car, which Paul ironically thinks of as his, books her ferry crossing and leaves. Despite telling Paul of her intentions for days and weeks leading up to it, he still didn't believe she would. He belittled her and told her she wouldn't survive five minutes without him. Upon returning home from work, Paul discovered she had indeed left him and proceeded to call and text her repeatedly with demands of where was his dinner and how was he supposed to get to work without a car? I found Paul's tirade tiresome and wanted to slap him. Although there were times I wanted to slap Clare as well.
Aside from those little nuances, Clare settled into her dilapidated cottage and set to making it a home. She makes two friends immediately - Janice, who runs the cafe, and Ryan, who runs the bookshop across from the cafe. Clare has an immense love of books but Paul dismissed her interest and threw out her beloved novels to make way for his car magazines. At last now she can pick up her love of books again with no one to stop her. She can also eat what she likes, often devouring slices of Janice's to-die-for cakes which Paul wouldn't allow her to, insinuating she was letting herself go. Such put-downs had my blood boiling!
As soon as Clare moves into Clonamurty Farm and begins to pull it apart, throwing out junk and setting aside pieces she could re-purpose. One such chair, which had seen better days, Clare found a hole in the bottom of - large enough to put her hand in. As she did so, her hand encircled something and she withdrew it, revealing an old birth certificate for a James O'Brien folded over a First Communion medallion with the date 1910 and the name Jimmy Gallagher engraved on the back. Who were these people? And what did the birth certificate have to do with the medallion? Were these things someone's forgotten secret?
The discovery of these items inspired Clare to delve into the history of her new home to find out who lived at Clonamurty Farm before her family did.
I must admit, Ellen's story was by far the most poignant and the one that enthralled me the most. Her character just touched your heart. I felt myself seeing the world - or Ireland - through her eyes and the harsh realities that faced a young woman on her own amidst a time of war. As Clare unravels a few secrets and learns a little more about her new home we see Ellen's story unfold in parallel to the present day.
THE FORGOTTEN SECRET is a clever page turner that will transport you back in time to 1920s Ireland alongside the present day story. Each chapter tells the tale of both women in dual timelines that will take your breath away. I am a sucker for historical fiction so of course the historical aspect is always going to appeal to me more. But having said that, I did enjoy both stories which lead to an incredibly touching end.
BUT...I felt there were still a few things that were left unsaid that should have been explored more. Throughout the book as Clare talks about her grandmother (which I was confused at times when she referred to her being her grandmother and her great-grandmother), we are lead to believe from Ellen's story alongside Clare's who Granny Irish was. But it seemed not. However, the story doesn't actually tell you of Granny Irish's identity, just a vague reference to a woman in one of Ryan's history books which we are then lead to assume. The other point that grated with me was throughout all of Clare's research into the history of Clonamurty Farm and who lived there before her family, there is no reference at all as to how it started out as the Gallagher's farm and ended up being the Kennedy's. What happened in between? Wasn't that the whole point of Clare's research?
For all the stories that were in THE FORGOTTEN SECRET, despite the sorrow and heartache that be-felled Ellen she went on to have her happy ever after in the end, though we only hear it third hand in the end. But the saddest part is the reunion that never was. What Clare and Ryan achieved in the end was beautiful and bittersweet.
“You can research ancestry all you like, but how people actually felt and what they thought is lost in the mists of time.” This has to be one of my favourite quotes from the book. So beautiful and so insightful. I also loved Ryan's analogy of Ireland's war of independance in parallel to divorce.
I would like to thank #KathleenMcGurl, #NetGalley and #HQDigital for an ARC of #TheForgottenSecret in exchange for an honest review.