A Second Life by Dermot Bolger.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 24th February 2023

New Island: €13.95. Kindle: €6.96.

Sean Blake, a press photographer and father of two young children is involved in a near fatal car crash outside the gates of the Botanic Gardens. His heart stops for a minute or two, and in the time it takes the paramedics to resuscitate him, he observes the scene of carnage from above, before finding himself in a peaceful place, where he meets the people he once loved – and sees the face of a mysterious stranger.

It’s a struggle for Sean to return to the pain and confusion of life – and it’s his duty to his family, rather than his love for them that makes him do so. And this leaves him with debilitating guilt. Meanwhile, in Coventry, a woman hearing a crash, wakes with a start. She’s convinced the son she gave up for adoption has died, and will now never find her.

So starts A Second Life. And what follows is a heart-rending account of Sean’s struggle to come to terms with his past and find a route for a happy future. His was a good story – he was endowed with loving parents, but when they told him, at 11, that he was adopted, he ripped up all the photos of himself, because he no longer knew who he was or where he belonged. And such was his enduring sense of shame, he has never told his wife, Geraldine, the truth of his parentage.

Even now, as he starts a desperate search for his birth mother, he keeps Geraldine in the dark – and his long absences from home leave her flummoxed and hurt. Will he find out the truth of his origins, and, more importantly, will this give him the peace to enable his life to get back on track?

This wide-ranging novel harks back to the time when Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes thrived; and the cruelty and secrecy of the nuns makes for harrowing reading. The title refers to Sean’s Second Life – and could equally apply to his new life with his adoptive parents, or this new change after his near-death experience.

It could also be aimed at the author. He penned the original version of this novel back in 1993. At the time, his sons were small – the same age as Sean’s children are in the novel. And although he was happy enough with his work at the time, he became less so as the secrets of the past became gradually uncovered. He fretted and felt that he hadn’t got the story quite right. And so, he redrafted the novel, imbuing it with the truth gleaned from his extensive research.

There have, of course, been numerous books written, and many documentaries shown on the scandals of the church and their attitude towards women since the book was originally published. (I co-wrote one myself – Whispering Hope, telling the true stories of five of the Magdalene survivors,) but this one is brilliant in showing, not only, the way unmarried mothers were treated back then, but in concentrating, more, on the pain and lasting trauma felt by her son, who, in truth, was one of the lucky ones. 

Sean had a happy upbringing, a loving marriage and two beautiful children he adored, yet after his accident he could not find peace – and knew he never would until he could find out what his origins were. And finding out was far from easy, with obstacles constantly placed in his way. This beautiful novel shows Bolger at his best. The twisty, often surprising plot is driven by the characters, and as they are all empathic, and ring true, the reader is constantly rooting for them. There’s a mysterious element to the novel too, which adds both drama and colour. In all, this is a great achievement and a valuable addition to the canon.

Published in the Irish Examiner on 14th January.

© Sue J Leonard. 2023

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