The story begins in a small island in the northern-most tip of Ireland where we are introduced to young Mary, a beautiful daughter of a peasant who lives with her widowed mother in a cabin, three fields from the sea. One night during a furious storm, Mary is believed to be consumed by the sea and the next morning is found laying beside a drowned man. Ever since, the girl who had been blessed with the gift of eloquence has been considered as “away”. People are convinced that her soul has been taken over by otherworldly forces and a priest tries to take it upon himself to rid her of this condition. He discusses his concerns with his friend, the schoolmaster O’Malley and heads over the Mary’s house to try and help her, without success. In a twist of the plotline, the schoolmaster O’Malley ends up marrying the fair maiden, eventually welcoming their son Liam.
Away is wrought with fantasy and Irish folklore right from the beginning. Jane Urquhart is obviously trying hard to touch her Irish roots as she places a heavy emphasis on its rich history and uses poetic and nature references in her writing. Perhaps, in endeavoring to make it fit, we loose the richness of the character’s purpose. Despite my love for the mystical and magical, I found the story a bit far-fetched and was constantly trying to understand the leitmotif.
The historical backdrop of the mid-19th century famine that forces the O’Malley’s to leave their home and emigrate to Canada, puts things into perspective in the second half of the book. The story starts to take shape and the history of Upper Canada is revealed. However, after that Jane Urquhart overreaches again – mixing politics with personal – and this feels contrived and farfetched.