In Andrew Miller’s historical novel The Slowworm’s Song, a British family reckons with their patriarch’s military involvement in Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Though raised as a Quaker, Stephen joined the British army when he was young and aimless. He was stationed in Belfast, where he committed an unthinkable act. After that, he returned to England and fathered his only child, Maggie. Now a chronic alcoholic in his fifties, Stephen works toward sobriety, but he struggles to come to terms with his actions in Belfast—and with his abandonment of Maggie.
As the story opens, Stephen receives a letter inviting him to reconciliation hearings about the Troubles, which causes him to panic. Suspense is activated by the question of what, exactly, he did in Belfast—a question he delays answering in his explanatory letters to Maggie.
The novel’s epistolary form proves fitting. It is both quiet and introspective in its treatment of Stephen’s back story. Accustomed to silence from his childhood, he is a vulnerable and haunted lead. Musing about his younger self, he writes, “I don’t know how much I can claim to know about that young soldier, what I could tell you about him that would set him apart from the others. He must have had his worries but I’d have to guess at what they were.” Figurative language is used to convey his obsession with a past that’s too murky to comprehend. In “the looking glass world of the Troubles,” he writes, a summer day “was falling on our heads like a tower block.”
An exquisite, tender novel that insists on the dignity of others, The Slowworm’s Song follows a father’s attempts to reconcile with his daughter—and his attempts to understand his own past.
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