Reviewed by Emma Crowley
How do you pick up the pieces when the person that held them together is gone?
When forty-year-old Rabbit Hayes dies, she leaves behind a family broken by grief. Her mother Molly is distraught and in danger of losing her faith. Her father Jack spends hour upon hour in the family attic, poring over his old diaries, losing himself in the past.
Rabbit's brother Davey finds himself suddenly guardian to her twelve-year-old daughter Juliet. Juliet might be able to fill a hole in Davey's heart - but how can he help Juliet through her grief when he can barely cope with his own?
But even though the Hayes family are all fighting their own battles, they are drawn together by their love for Rabbit, and their love for each other. In the years that follow her death they find new ways to celebrate and remember her, to find humour and hope in the face of tragedy, and to live life to its fullest, as Rabbit would have wanted.
Many thanks to Bonnier Books UK via NetGalley for my copy of Below the Big Blue Sky to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
When I think of the author Anna McPartlin, I think of her astounding book The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes and I think many other readers do too. It’s a book that holds a special place in so many readers hearts for the impact it makes whilst you were reading it and for the impact that still remains even though it’s been such a long time since I have read it. Now many years later Anna has chosen to write a follow up, Below the Big Blue Sky. I’ll be honest and say I was apprehensive about reading this book because I was worried that it couldn’t live up to the impossibly high expectations that I had for it given how good the previous book had been.
It’s such a tough and traumatising subject matter but it was dealt with in the most beautiful and sensitive way with a pitch perfect balance between heartbreak, grief and loss, humour and hope. Since reading Rabbit Hayes, I have dealt with my own personal loss and I wondered would the subject matter be too raw and too close to the bone for me? Was I ready to read this kind of my book given my new perspective? Would it all be to much for me or would it in fact help me and prove to be another outstanding read from the author?
I needn’t have worried in the slightest as all my apprehensions about starting the book immediately dissipated within the first chapter or two. Once again Anna McPartlin gently takes the reader by the hand and leads them on a journey following the Hayes family and some extended friends as they cope with the loss of their remarkable daughter, sister and mother. There is a huge void left in their lives which affects each and every one of them in a different way but it’s how the author handles the topic in just the same caring and considerate manner as she did with the previous book that makes Below the Big Blue Sky one of the best books that I have read this year.
I’m sure it will feature in endless books of the year round ups come December and deservedly so. The same mixture of humour and heartbreak awaits you between the pages but again it’s all done in just the most perfect way. One minute you could have tears rolling down your face and then within a turn of the page you’re laughing out loud at the antics, comments and sayings that this Irish family get up to. You really do feel like the Hayes family are true friends and that you are there with them every step of the way as they try to come to terms with such trauma.
You may think god I could never read a book that deals with the themes of death, loss and grief because it would be very hard going but it’s not like that in the slightest. It’s not in the least bit doom and gloom and you never feel as if you are wading through the pages. That’s testament to the brilliant writing and the sensitive nature in the way the subject matter is dealt with by the author. It’s like she knows what level the reader can take and she never goes overboard. Instead this book is filled with honesty and intensity and everyone’s emotions are laid bare for the reader to see. Yes it’s heartbreaking and I did read the first part with a huge lump in my throat but at the same time it is hopeful that things will turn out all right at some stage in the future. Well as best they can be given the circumstances. That the one we loved and lost is out there looking down on us and will guide us through the tough times we will all experience at some stage in our lives.
The book is split into nine parts in total each with a different heading but it all felt so well connected and never disjointed separating it out in this way. There are lots of characters to get to know or refamilairise yourself with but I didn’t become confused working out who was who and what their story was. The only characters I would say I felt were kind of surplus to requirements were the former bandmates and friends of Rabbit’s brother Davey. I didn’t think they added anything really significant to the story and they could perhaps have been omitted but apart from that each character was carefully crafted and I identified, empathised and connected with each and every one of them.
None more so than Rabbit’s parents Molly and Jack. The way they react to the loss of their daughter after she endured such pain for several years is varied and I could see elements of myself in both of them. The agony of loss, the searing pain that comes in waves and threatens to overwhelm you so much that you think how can I go on? Well it’s all laid bare on the pages and I am so glad Anna was so honest in the way she wrote every character, and nothing was spared. She never shied away from difficult subjects or taboo feelings. Really you couldn’t with this kind of book.
A warm, vibrant, close and loving family have been left with a gaping hole and the anger, fear, pain and confusion in their world which has been completely turned upside down is clear for the reader to see. The unfairness of it all eats away at many of the characters but at the same time Rabbit has left a lasting impression and a legacy in the form of her daughter Juliet who Davey agreed to take on and everyone carries a little piece of Rabbit inside them, her resilience, wisdom and kind heart. As you delve deeper and deeper into the story, you realise this is like a guide for life in how to cope and that it is so important for those left behind to talk and communicate and rebuild and strengthen relationships. So many important life lessons and little snippets of advice are to be found in this fantastic read and you soon come to root deeply for each character that features and you admire the way they attempt to pick themselves up and try and put the pieces of their lives back together one little step at a time. None more so than Rabbit’s sister Grace.
Grace is married to Lenny and they have four sons. She has secretly been tested for the cancer gene that Rabbit carried and she has now learnt that she too is a carrier. She faces some difficult decisions and struggles with what to do. I felt every bit of her indecision and the sheer panic and fear that reverberates throughout her. At the same time she is trying to maintain a brave face for the sake of all her family and to also try and prevent her parents from losing it completely. No one can replace Rabbit and even though she is gone her personality and memory echoes from every page and Grace would never try to replace her but she does a remarkable job of following her instincts and staying true to herself when others perhaps feel she is making a mistake. I thought the development and exploration of her relationship with Lenny given the changes and decisions they must look to make was just brilliant and again there was never this sense of glossing over facts or emotions. No matter how the reader was going to feel reading this it just had to be done for to skim through events and emotions would have made the book such a let down.
Davey, Rabbit’s brother, is grappling with the loss of someone he loved so much but at the same time it's made him really grow up and face responsibilities. He doesn’t want to let Rabbit down and wants to do his best by Juliet, but what does he know about raising a teenage girl? Is taking her away on the road with him touring America the right thing to do? Davey seemed lost and at sea and it was like he thought sure things will always turn out all right in the end. I think Rabbit was very wise and knew exactly what she was doing when she entrusted Juliet to him and perhaps despite this horrific loss it would be the makings of him in more ways than one. As for Juliet her grief ran deep and she is bewildered at everything that has befallen her. Her mother gone just as she is entering some of the most important and life changing years of her life and then to be taken from safe and familiar surroundings. I didn’t like what happened to her., it was very upsetting but the revelation/resolution of this was just so apt and brought a tear to my eye.
Marjorie, Rabbit’s best friend, whose marriage has broken was someone who I perhaps thought would feature on the edges of the story but no she got her chance to shine and I thought her own personal story mixed in very well with how the family were coping and trying to move on. Her story took a surprising but welcome turn. But for me it’s Rabbit’s parents Molly and Jack who I just wanted to read more and more about. Married for so long and so close but the loss of Rabbit threatens to tear them apart. A fissure opens between them that grows wider and wider. Jack retreats to the attic and all forms of communication cease as he becomes lost in old diaries. His pain and agony become very difficult to talk about.My heart literally ached for him.
Molly was always so staunch and supportive of everyone and she was written as the typically Irish mammy who had me laughing quite regularly as did many of the characters in particular Grace’s sons. But Molly completely changes and is done with God when Rabbit dies. She transforms and becomes this angry person out to fight and protest for rights and water charges. Her family can’t understand how she can have done a complete 360 but death and loss does strange things to different people. The moment her child died marked Molly and it’s only as her full revelations are disclosed to the reader near the end that we can truly understand why she went off the rails so to speak. But my god I loved Molly and even though both her marriage and life were imploding and something was eating at her soul. I knew deep down there was the old Molly waiting to be freed to show just how remarkable and stalwart she truly was.
Below the Big Blue Sky can be read as a stand alone and Anna McPartlin has stated this too but really do yourself a favour and read the amazing Rabbit Hayes before you start this book. In fact read one directly after the other. You’ll be put through the emotional ringer in more ways than one between both laughter and tears but you will be oh so glad you read these impressive, compelling, fabulous book that deserves to be consumed in one go. It’s infused with warmth, humour and human understanding which contrasts with the trauma and heartache. The wait may have been long for this follow up but it was more than worth it. It was a balm to the soul and it made me look at my own loss in a new way. I am so glad we got to read more of the Hayes’ story and such justice was done to it. I feel in a way the reader has gotten closure now that this story has been told. I really can’t recommend this enough, make sure you read it as soon as possible.