In Emmet and Me , Sara Gethin delves into the troubling issue of child neglect; depicting a world in which young people are starved of food and affection, treated roughly and robbed of their identities. Just as in her earlier book Not Thomas, she handles this dark and uncomfortable topic with considerable sensitivity and understanding of a child’s point of view.
The novel begins in the city of Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers. They’re not neglected as such but they are not deeply cherished either for in the eyes of their mother the children are an inconvenience and the source of her regular explosions of temper.
School has just broken up for summer when Claire’s mother has her most spectacular outburst yet. Having discovered lipstick on her husband’s collar, she reacts by smashing all their dishes against the walls of their home. The kids lock themselves in the bathroom out of fear. Rescue comes in the shape of Uncle Jack who agrees with their dad, that the best course of action would be to take the children to Ireland to stay with their grandmother.
Claire and her 12 year old brother Will have never seen Grannie Connemara. The sharp-faced, blunt-tongued woman they meet is not at all the “beautiful queen who would welcome us warmly to her wondrous castle” that Claire has imagined. Nor is her tiny cottage much of a “magical kingdom”; it has no electricity or indoor toilet, no television and no books. Brother and sister are left to make their own entertainment while their toddler brother Louis is tied to the leg of a kitchen table to keep him from crawling away. He has nothing to play with except a wooden block.
When summer ends, instead of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are enrolled in local schools run by Catholic nuns and priests. Will has a miserable time, withdrawing into himself more and more, though the cause of his unhappiness is revealed only slowly in snippets of info.
Claire similarly finds it hard to make friends with her classmates, some of whom mock her Welsh accent and accuse her gran of being an alcoholic. But one day, while hiding from the other girls, she discovers a boy called Emmet. His hands are filthy, his knees are raw and his shoes are held together with an elastic band. But Claire’s limited experience of life means she never questions his explanations for his condition.
Instead, she is enraptured by Emmet’s tales of his horse Buddy who loves apple cores and bread crusts (his favourites are from fish paste sandwiches). Emnet soon becomes the centre of Claire’s life, their friendship cemented through a mutual love of Black Beauty and equally vivid imaginations. Caught up in her own concerns, Claire is unprepared for a disaster that befalls her friend.
Emmet and Me has the structure of a Bildungsroman, with Claire’s ‘awakening’ to the harsh realities of life reflected in hindsight by her older self. Some readers might want an ending which has all the neat threads drawn together but I preferred the way Sarah Gethin leaves open a question of what happened to Emmet and the other boys living with him in the Industrial School. It’s not even certain whether Claire herself knows the answer.
This a haunting story made all the more affecting because it’s told from the perspective of a child with all their limited experience and understanding of the world. Claire’s innocence is especially noticeable in her readiness to accept, without challenge, everything that Emmet tells her about his life.
But it’s also apparent in her interactions with girls in her class. She longs to become best friends with the prettiest, most popular girl, but doesn’t appreciate until too late that she’s being played like a fool. So often in the novel I wanted to catch hold of Claire and whisper in her ear that the drab looking, studious “House girls” could ultimately prove to be truer, more loyal, friends than the shining girls with neat partings and false promises of party invites.
The way in which we’re drawn into the life of this girl is one of the beauties of the novel. In Claire and Emmet, Sara Gethin has created characters that you feel live and breathe, and whose futures you want to discover. But my favourite figure was actually the grandmother, a woman whose stern exterior is the result of tragedies in her own life. I was disappointed when she disappeared from the narrative, because I wanted to learn more about why she was so hostile towards the Catholic church and unable to show affection.
Emmet and Me is a novel I’d heartily recommend as a delicate, thoughtful tale of the fate of poor , abandoned and orphaned children who endured neglect and abuse in the Irish Industrial School system. It was a shock to get to the end of the book and to discover from Sara Gethin’s note she based her narrative on first hand accounts of such establishments.
Emmet and M by Sara Gethin: Footnotes
Sara Gethin is the pen-name of Wendy White, an author of children’s books. A native of Wales, she has worked as a childminder, an assistant in a children’s library and as a primary school teacher. Her first book, Welsh Cakes and Custard, won the Tir nan-Og Award in 2014.
Emmet and Me was published by Honno, the Welsh women’s independent press, in May 2020.
I read this book as part of a promotional tour organised by RandomTours. My copy was provided gratis by Honno in exchange for an honest review.