November 2015

Theresa Talbot - Penance

"‘Penance’ is a damn good read."

Oonagh O'Neil has a challenge on her hands - and her head over a toilet bowl. TV journalist and media darling Oonagh O'Neil faces danger and chaos when an elderly priest dies on the altar of his Glasgow church. His death comes as she is about to expose the shocking truth behind the closure of a Magdalene Institution. The Church has already tried to suppress the story. Is someone also covering their tracks?

DI Alec Davies is appointed to investigate the priest's death. He and Oonagh go way back, but their friendship counts for nothing when Davies' suspicions falls on Oonagh's married lover. Oonagh now faces the biggest decision of her life. But will it be hers to make? What secrets lie behind the derelict institution's doors? What sparked the infamous three-day riot that closed it? And what happened to the three Maggies who vowed to stay friends forever? From Ireland to Scotland. From life to death.

I'm not going to do that thing where I say, for a debut this is excellent. Because, for any experience of novelist, 'Penance' is a damn good read.

In Oonagh O'Neil, the author has created a fascinating, flesh and blood character. Someone who pops from the page and someone, dare I say it, who would be great fun to go for a drink with. There is much about this story that is dark and Oonagh's irrepressible sense of humour carries a light tone that leavens the darkness just when it's needed. If I was to pick hairs, there were a couple of times I felt it could have been toned down just a wee bit.

The Magdelene Institutions have become notorious throughout the UK and Ireland for the way young unmarried pregnant women (girls really) were treated and Talbot uses the experiences of those girls to good effect. In this skilful author's hands this never feels exploitative: she treats their powerful stories with respect and honesty. Indeed when describing what happened in these institutions this is often when her writing is at its sharpest and most moving.

As strong as all that social history is, this is still a crime novel and in 'Penance' that element informs the story and the subsequent mystery without ever swamping it: the mark of a talented writer. At one point near the end, I almost jumped out of my chair and cheered. When a writer provokes that kind of response in you, you know you've been removed from your reality and taken on a journey. What more can you ask for from a book? 'Penance' is in turns an exciting, humourous and poignant read.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Back to review archive