My 12 in 12 Challenge – April – Historical Novels – Book 4

The fourth book in my 12 in 12 Challenge is set in 1880 in Ireland and is The Ante-Room by Kate O’Brien. It is set over three days which are Catholic holy days and centres on Teresa Mulqueen who is dying of cancer. The family gather to pray for her healing and to consult a visiting specialist. It is a short book and feels quite claustrophobic because the timeframe and environment are deliberately constrained.

The book concentrates on the relationships between the characters and the decisions they have to make which are skewed by their faith and by the science, neither of which are going to keep Teresa alive. All the relationships are flawed and no one is happy. Teresa doesn’t want to die until her son is looked after but he is suffering from syphilis and cannot form a true marriage. Her nurse is tired of poverty and considering a marriage to Reggie for the comfort and security it will bring her even though she will have to nurse him in exchange. The married daughter has lost the passion in her relationship and her husband is in love with her unmarried sister who will not break up the marriage. Teresa’s husband has lost himself and become a cypher and the doctor is in love with Agnes, the unmarried sister.

During the course of the three days people face their situations and move on although I have to say that I don’t think that any of them are any happier at the end apart from Teresa and her married daughter each of whom is set free by the things that happen. The unmarried daughter Agnes is at the centre of the novel and is unable to live her true life because of the expectations of others and the church.

There is some fine writing in this book but it is not particularly uplifting. Agnes is about the only likeable character and her life is destined to be unfulfilled. This is a study of a family limited by the church, themselves and others’ expectations. It feels very true historically.