Sunday, 7 February 2016

Emma's Review: Rebel Sisters by Marita Conlon-McKenna

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

With the threat of the First World War looming, tension simmers under the surface of Ireland.

Growing up in the privileged confines of Dublin’s leafy Rathmines, the bright, beautiful Gifford sisters Grace, Muriel and Nellie kick against the conventions of their wealthy Anglo-Irish background and their mother Isabella’s expectations. Soon, as war erupts across Europe, the spirited sisters find themselves caught up in their country’s struggle for freedom. 

Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett – both leaders of 'The Rising' – while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and bravely takes up arms, fighting alongside Countess Constance Markievicz in the rebellion. 

On Easter Monday, 1916, the biggest uprising in Ireland for two centuries begins. The world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear will be torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy.

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Any girl growing up in Ireland would be familiar with the writing of Marita Conlon-McKenna. She is famed for her children's books particularly for her famine trilogy beginning with Under the Hawthorn Tree which is still studied in primary schools to this day. Marita was one of my favourite Irish children’s authors and has since gone on to write many books for adults. I loved her first adult novel The Stone House and all her subsequent titles although I did feel The Rose Garden felt a little bit flat and run of the mill. Now after an absence of three years Marita returns with Rebel Sisters focusing on the women who campaigned alongside the men of Ireland 100 years ago for Irish independence. With 1916 celebrations fast approaching here in Ireland this novel couldn't have been more timely and considering the influx of novels we are sure to see in the lead up to the anniversary this kind of book needs to be special and stand out from the rest. Rebel Sisters is a good introduction for those readers who don't know much about the Easter 1916 rising and the years leading up to this significant event in Irish history. I had studied it in school years ago and although I am a teacher I haven't taught the older classes where this topic would be studied. So Rebel Sisters certainly refreshed my memory and in fact it really did make the whole story more accessible and easier to understand. Writing from a female viewpoint was an interesting but necessary angle as I don't think many women would have read this book if it was all told from the male perspective.

Rebel Sisters focuses on the bright, beautiful and intelligent Gifford Sisters – Muriel, Grace, Nellie and their mother Isabella from 1901 right up until the suppression of the Easter 1916 rising. The girls come from a family of 12 but the author has chosen to focus on three of the sisters but various brothers and sisters are mentioned throughout the story. Before reading this book I had never heard of the Gifford sisters or the part they played in fighting for Irish independence and freedom as more often than not it is the rebel leaders and their place in history which is most explored in Irish history books. The Giffords were real characters so the author had to have researched her facts thoroughly in order to write this book. It's not easing weaving fact with fiction especially when the main part of the story is so engrained in the minds of the Irish people as a pivotal moment in the fight for an Irish Republic. 

Overall I feel the author did a good job even if I thought some parts could have been shortened and less detailed. The book is divided into sections from 1901-1916 with chapters alternating between the sisters and their mother. Before I began reading this I did think the book would focus solely on 1916 so I was surprised to see the book beginning in 1901 and did question whether it was necessary to go so far back in time 16 years away from the main event. I'm still in two minds over this as some of the sections were too long and could have been briefly mentioned. On the other hand it did give the reader a fascinating insight into the lives of the people of Ireland at the time and of events we now read about in history books. It also showed me just how far we have come in 100 years.

There really is an awful lot of detail throughout this book as we are introduced to the Gifford family in 1901. Isabella the matriarch is a staunch Protestant married to Frederick Gifford a Catholic. All the children in a mixed marriage were supposed to be raised Catholic but Isabella went against the rules and ensured all her children held her Protestant views. This viewpoint really did affect how she reacted to later events in the novel and to me she didn't come across as the most heart-warming and devoted of mothers as is evident in the fact the nanny more or less raised her 12 children. Isabella rather preferred to keep up appearances and develop her wealthy position in Dublin society. The fact Nellie, Grace and Muriel rebel against their mothers beliefs and campaign for Irish independence must have really irked Isabella but I do wish she could have showed more compassion and support instead of being so loyally devoted to the crown. The first half of the book is devoted to the girls later teenage years and early twenties as they try to decide where they would like their life path to go. At the time a woman's place was best in the home, find a nice man, marry, have children, keep a good house and entertain while the husband earned the money. But the three sisters are of a different opinion as are many other women at the time and they seek to venture outside the confines of the house and enter the big wide world in various guises. These women were so ambitious for their time and it made me wonder did they realise how important the times they were living in were? Did they feel they were part of major milestones and changes? What set them apart that they dared to flaunt convention and follow their heart rather than the rules of society?

Nellie does not want to spend the rest of her life serving at her mother's parties or cooking for the household. She has a talent for baking and cooking. Showing great strength and courage when faced with her mother's negativity she enrols on a course which ultimately sees her acquiring a job working in the country as a domestic instructress teaching cooking and domestic skills to young women (doesn't that seem so anarchic now?) Grace has a love for the art with a particular talent for caricature. At just 16 she attends the Metropolitan School of Art and develops her craft further by successfully applying for the London Slade School of Art. Here in London Grace learns of the suffragette movement led by the Pankhursts and hopes rights for women can also be achieved in Ireland. For Muriel caring for those who are sick holds a special place in her heart. She begins her training as a probationer nurse in Sir. Patrick Duns Hospital but after a bout of rheumatic fever questions whether she is strong or tough enough for the day to day routine of nursing. Over the course of several years we follow the three woman and sometime their sister Sidney who writes articles under the pen name John Brennan. They navigate the ups and downs of their own lives against the political and cultural changes of the time. The women become involved in many organisations springing up at the time and take a keen interest in the revival of the Gaelic language and customs and the growing fight for an Ireland ruled by the people of Ireland. They meet Padraig Pearse who sets up St.Endas school for boys begun to re-establish education through Irish. Here Muriel meets Thomas McDonagh who she will later marry and who himself alongside Padraig Pearse and many others will play important roles in the future rising.

So many crucial moments in Irish history not to mention WWI were mentioned that at times the story did become too bogged down in events rather than character development of the sisters. Yes it did help to explain how we eventually reached the point of the rising in 1916 but it became all a bit too like a history book you would read in school. The essence of the women and their personalities got a little bit lost along the way before finding themselves towards the end where I do believe the story really picked up pace. There were so many events both national and worldwide slotted into the book that I couldn't begin to mention them. Alongside this many famous people in Irish history were mentioned such as Jim Larkin, Countess Markievicz etc which alongside various groups established at the time such as the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood that honestly I did become a bit confused as everything seemed to get tangled up and the essence of the book seemed to be forgotten. It's like the book lost it's way and couldn't decide whether it was a book based on the Gifford sisters or 1916.  This is historical fiction based on true events and somewhere along the way it started to feel like I was back in school in a long history lesson. It appeared as if the author was trying to mention every event and follow a timeline, I wanted more focus specifically on the women and how they were thinking and feeling as some of the chapters were really surplus to requirements and could instead have gotten inside the minds of Nellie, Grace and Muriel a bit more.

Saying all that the book did redeem itself towards the end as the last section finally got us to what I initially thought the book would be about - the 1916 rising itself. Now at last the book really did come to life and I was gripped and on the edge of my seat as the descriptive writing flowed and the emotions shone through as the leaders of the rebellion stormed the G.P.O  and fought for Irish freedom which ultimately lead to tragedy. Marita did a brilliant job of describing the heroic efforts of a few and the suffering they endured in the brief time they occupied Dublin strongholds and brought the city to its knees. I'll admit I did shed a tear or two towards the end both for what the sisters endured and how it affected their personal lives in particular for Muriel and Grace. The notes at the end were very welcome as we could see how life panned out for the sisters. The question remains for me though will Rebel Sisters appeal to a mass market audience or long term fans of Marita Conlon McKenna particularly those living outside of Ireland? I knew the background to the story but many others mightn't and be turned off by its contents and themes. The author took a brave step in writing this novel and although it is not pure perfection it is a good read and an eye opener but maybe not to all her readers tastes. I would be very interested to see what non Irish readers make of Rebel Sisters? After this Marita will return to the storytelling in the like of The Hat Shop on the Corner or The Matchmaker or now the historical fiction bug has bitten again will she stay writing in this genre?

I'd like to thank Emma for reviewing Rebel Sisters which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.


  1. Great review, very well phrased as usual :). I will put this on my wish list as I love historical fiction.