Sisters of Belfast

Written by Melanie Maure
Review by Kate Braithwaite

Twin sisters Aelish and Isabel suffer the devastating loss of both their parents when their Belfast home is bombed during WW2. Then aged ten, the girls are sent to an orphanage run by the Sisters of Bethlehem, but life leads them in different directions. Over time, Aelish becomes a nun, while Izzy runs away and starts a new life in Canada. But when illness threatens Izzy, Aelish crosses the Atlantic to be at her sister’s side. And when further disasters strike the young women, they return to Ireland and must confront the secrets of the past, before choosing the road ahead.

The main action of the novel takes place in 1955, with some shifts back to 1941 and 1946, and forward to 1970 and 2016. The point of view is shared between the twins, and also Sister Mike and Sister Edel, both highly influential in the lives of the two principal characters. Melanie Maure taps into the shocking history of Ireland’s religious homes for unmarried mothers in this thoughtful and often moving look back into recent history. Sisters are at the heart of the story – both biological and religious – and the connection between the twins, described as a rope they sometimes tug on, or reach for, is particularly well handled. The damage experienced by primary and secondary characters makes this an emotional read and, although I felt that some dramatic moments were rushed and questioned the need for sections set in the 1970s and 2016, overall the quality of writing in this debut shines through. Maure has a great feel for language and creating flawed but engaging characters. It will be exciting to see what she writes next.