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WHERE THEY LIE
by Claire Coughlan
Harper, February 2024
304 pages
$18.99
ISBN: 1398521701


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Claire Coughlan's debut novel WHERE THEY LIE is a historical mystery that addresses present-day problems. Told in the present tense, it feels immediate. Its promise is great but its problems are legion.

In Dublin in 1968, newspaper reporter Nicoletta Sarto, daughter of a pair of Italian immigrants, is curious about a notorious figure: Gloria Fitzpatrick, who had she not apparently committed suicide in the 1950s in a mental institution, would have been the last woman executed in Dublin. In reality, the last woman executed in the Republic of Ireland for any reason was the poisoner Annie Walshe, in 1925 and the death penalty for most offenses was abolished in 1964. It is plausible that the fictional Gloria Fitzpatrick could have faced execution.

Her crime is murder. As Nicoletta learns, Gloria was convicted of the murder of Mrs. Elizabeth O'Rourke, a mother of six who desperately didn't want to give birth to a seventh child. A back-alley abortionist, Gloria tried to help Elizabeth and ended up killing her. At about the same time, an aspiring actress named Julia Bridges disappeared, and suspicion for her death fell upon Gloria, but, as Julia's body was never found, Gloria was not charged.

Perhaps Nicoletta's interest stems from her knowledge that many families have secrets. Her own family secret is her late infant son Enzo, whom she had to pretend for propriety's sake was her very much younger brother. For reasons I cannot divine, how Nicoletta concealed her pregnancy from the neighbors who think the baby was her brother is never clearly explained. She was, in any case, not forced into one of Ireland's infamous Magdalen Laundries, facilities billed as refuges for unmarried pregnant women though in fact designed to punish them for their sin. The last closed only in 1996.

Shortly after Nicoletta discusses Julia's murder with her colleagues at the newspaper, a body bearing Julia's wedding ring is exhumed from a Dublin back garden. This should remind readers of the Magdalen Laundries' mass graves, one of which, opened in 1993, contained the bodies of 133 women. However, the characters do not acknowledge the women who disappeared into the laundries. Instead, the secular midwife Miss Fitzpatrick stands in for this institution, apparently.

Investigating the Julia Bridges cold case, Nicoletta discovers that in an old theatre publicity photo, Julia Bridges is pictured with a woman who looks exactly like Nicoletta's mother, Daniela Sarto, and shares Daniela's name. The book's title, WHERE THEY LIE, refers to both human remains and the spaces in which people tell the lies that kill.

Nicoletta's search for Julia's fate and her own origins is handled in a familiar manner, redolent of melodrama. It seems too convenient that the case with which Nicoletta is professionally obsessed is rapidly revealed to her own origin story, the story of a number of Dublin women tied together by lies. Furthermore, Nicoletta's quest for these women's truths becomes even more personal when she discovers that she is again pregnant and the options available to her are little better than what existed twenty-five years earlier. Once again, her racing thoughts do not travel to the Magdalen Laundries.

As I have said, this novel is not without problems. Nicoletta's discovery that the case she is chasing is her own history seems too easy. In a time of moral panic, she tells her work colleague Dermot that she is pregnant. He confides in her that he is "queer." In reality, Ireland only decriminalized homosexual activity in 1993. When Dermot and Nicoletta indict themselves to each other, they have done very little to earn each others' trust. It is moments like this in which WHERE THEY LIE seems to take place in our era, not Nicoletta's.

Even less comprehensible than Nicoletta and Dermot's mutual trust is her attraction to another coworker, Barney, who is estranged from his wife and ultimately, conveniently, about to be liberated by divorce. She agrees to marry him without having the crucial conversation to which the entire novel has seemed to build. How will they guarantee that she will have the bodily freedom not to become another Mrs. O'Rourke, mother of six, or else a casualty of illegal abortion? Is Barney able to stand up to the people in his society who would judge him for harboring a wife who is not a brood mare? Knowing what she knows, how can she marry any man without such assurances?

Finally, on dramatic terms, WHERE WE LIE underwhelms. Nicoletta does not tear the truth from the teeth of falsehood so much as she happens upon it. We discover what happened to Julia Bridges in a long, expository letter left behind by a dead character, so the mystery isn't solved so much as it is explained. Finally, Julia's seducer turns out to be a rather usual suspect and another man saves Nicoletta's life, risking his own and proving that there is honor in patriarchy.

When Coughlan introduces Nicoletta, in the newspaper office, Nicoletta "likes to think that her life began here... forged in this wall of noise" from the typewriters. By the end of the book, she's grown willing to confront how women's lives are actually "forged" and destroyed in her oppressively patriarchal society.

In the end, Coughlan's propensity to make it easy to forget that this story takes place fifty years ago reinforces her conviction that with respect to women's rights, we are constantly reliving the same nightmares. In her next novel, the past might be rendered a bit more persuasively and the characters' risks more thoroughly explored.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2024

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