I actually listened to this book on a slight whim, having just joined the listening service ‘Audible’. Undeterred however, I was in the mood for a somewhat random choice of book, and Philomena ‘sort of’ did the job.
The story starts with Philomena, a young Irish girl who falls pregnant after a brief one night stand. She is a female in the heart of an Ireland that barely acknowledges sex, let alone talks about it, and the resultant ignorance leads to Philomena being admitted to a convent to have the baby and work for the nuns until her son is adopted. The opening plays out against the backdrop of Catholic Ireland and a government reluctant and then incompetent in managing adoption and immigration to America for so many children, many of whom become a somewhat ‘lost’ generation over in the United States.
It is her son, Anthony, (later renamed Michael by his adoptive parents) who then becomes the principle focus of the book. Author Sixsmith tracks Michael’s life as he graduates from law school, discovers he is gay, and rises to the elite ranks of the Republican Party. His central identity struggles inform much of the narrative, as we plough along in a chronological fashion until he is diagnosed with HIV (again touching on issues of 80s America.)
The book is not a classic, nor a standout shocker for telling us about Ireland’s history and chequered understanding of the Magdalen phenomenon. But it is smartly told and, as a piece of almost social history works well. A lot of reviews did mention that the title would be ‘Michael’ rather than ‘Philomena’, and I have some sympathy for that. The story is his rather than hers.
Similarly, the book can’t claim to be an important one in terms of macro histories or glimpses of a specific time (it is too generalised for that), but in terms of one mans unique life, it is important to someone, somewhere. In many ways, it reads as a touching tribute to a parted mother and son.
Whilst the book is not overly ‘entertaining’, it does provide a natural ‘ooh what happens next?’ feel that can inspire some longer sessions reading it, but its legacy won’t – for me – stretch any further than that.
Of course this story is one that lies firmly in the heart of the controversial Irish approach to teenage pregnancy in the first half of the twentieth century, but don’t expect dark thrills and rushes of indignation; this book is much more subtle, and makes for a warm and strangely hopeful tale of how even those who think they may be lost forever, will always be found.
A by no means bad 6 and a half out of 10.