Mary Beth Keane’s novel The Walking People is a mesmerising family story spanning more than fifty years. It crosses the Atlantic from west coast Ireland to New York on the Eastern Seaboard, where what starts out as a reluctant immigrant’s journey ultimately becomes a real voyage of self-discovery for one young woman.
1960s Rural Ireland. Greta Cahill must abandon her quiet village to follow her fearless sister Johanna onto a ship bound for New York…
It’s here that she steps out of her sister’s shadow and into a life of her own, rich with love, work and family. As the years pass Greta longs to revisit the past – to see her mother, to show her what she has made of herself.
But she must protect a family secret, decades old. So when her children conspire to unite the worlds she’s kept so carefully apart, Greta fears she could lose it all…
Thanks to the success of her third novel, Ask Again, Yes, Mary Beth Keane’s debut novel,The Walking People, has been published here in the UK for the first time by Penguin Michael Joseph. And deservedly so.
The book opens with a prologue in which we experience Michael Ward’s last day at work as a sandhog, the term used for men who dig tunnels (in this case, for a water project), sometimes going down as deep underground as the skyscrapers that soar high above New York City. It takes the reader somewhere they would never normally go or even begin to imagine and is an incredible opening section.
We’re then taken back in time across the Atlantic Ocean to the far west coast of Ireland in 1956, where eight-year-old Greta Cahill lives in the remote hamlet of Ballyroan with her family, mother Lily and father Tom, elder sister Johanna and brothers, Jack, Little Tom and Padraic. We meet them one morning when the family’s woken by a tragic accident, which brings a traveller family crashing into their lives.
I found the sudden switch of location and time period a little disorienting at first but Mary Beth Keane’s wonderfully descriptive writing quickly immersed me in the landscape and the lives of her characters who inhabit it. I enjoyed the change of scene and pace and spending time with the family in Ireland provides us with a chance to see how they grow up and get to know each other, and what drives the three youngsters to emigrate to America.
It also feeds into so much of what comes later, helping to establish where the characters started out and what it was like for them there, everything they leave behind and the drastic changes they experience before, during and after that daunting transatlantic journey. The Walking People of the title might well be the traveller family we meet here but it’s also surely referencing the emigrant experience: the people who decide to move on, leaving their homes to start over in a new country, in search of work and better opportunities.
With the exception of Michael and possibly Big Tom, it’s the women who stand out for me in The Walking People. I often found it hard to keep tabs on the Cahill brothers and differentiate between them. But then we spend more time with the women, whether in the cottage by the sea, on rare trips to Galway or in the hotel where the two girls work. Their mother, Lily, is a strong presence from the outset, as is Johanna with her teenage grumbling and swearing, but that’s no doubt why I gravitated more towards quieter Greta, who observes the family swirling and stomping around her.
At times, I railed at the way she’s treated and she had my full sympathy when we find out what’s been making her situation all the more difficult. This may well be a family story but Greta is very much at the heart of it and it is incredibly moving when we finally see her come into her own.
The Walking People is an absorbing family story of secrets and separation, love and acceptance, home and the migrant experience told with great tenderness, wit and compassion. Mary Beth Keane’s characters create a new home far from the only one they’ve ever known and show us that leaving to find our place in this world also sometimes leads to us discovering our true selves along the way.
The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane is published by Penguin Michael Joseph and is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. You can find out more about Mary Beth Keane and her writing on her Author Website, her Facebook Page, or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Sophie Shaw at the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.