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Several years ago, I watched a film called "The Magdalene Sisters" which was set in Ireland and based on a true story of the abuse of teenage girls in a Catholic convent/institution run by nuns and priests. I found that the film stayed with me for quite a long time as a lot of the content was quite moving to witness.
When I was browsing in my local library recently, I noticed a book that seemed to fit in with the same sort of storyline as this film and it caught my eye immediately as a result. I thought that it would offer an intriguing read, and this review discusses my opinions of the book, which is an account of true life events.
"Suffer The Little Children" by Frances Reilly can be purchased online at www.amazon.co.uk, where prices start from around 5p (plus postage costs) for a used copy, or from 59p (plus postage costs) for a new copy. There is also a kindle edition available to purchase, which I believe costs around £5. (Info as @ April 2012).
* THE BOOK *
During a cold December morning in 1956, Frances Reilly was taken from her home in Omagh, Northern Ireland, by her mother and an unfamiliar man. Along with her two sisters, Loretta who was 6 at the time, and Sinead who was only eight weeks old, three year-old Frances was taken to Belfast, where all three of the girls were walked up to a large wooden gate that was surrounded by an extremely high brick wall. Looking up, the girls could see that there was broken glass sticking out of the top of the wall, with coils of barbed wire lying on top. After she had rung the doorbell to announce their arrival, the girls' mother jumped back to the revving car with the unknown driver still inside and it immediately drove off, leaving her three daughters behind.
What lay beneath those high brick walls was the Poor Sisters of Nazareth Convent which was run by nuns and unbeknown to Frances at the time, this was to be her home for the next thirteen years.
With the other girls in the Convent, Frances had to learn to adapt to an unkind life, filled with cruelty and bitterness at the hands of the Nuns in charge. Beatings and mental torture became routine for Frances, and simple childhood longings, alongside the hope of freedom were quickly overtaken by intense feelings of helplessness and despair. As she struggled to cope with the abuse she suffered, Frances found her basic survival instincts kicking in..... and decided to fight back...
* MY OPINION *
I found this book was entirely gripping from the first pages. The writer has told her story in the first person, so I felt that the book had a very personal touch which made the tale even more harrowing, particularly in the first sections of the book when we are told of what happened to Frances and her sisters when they first arrived at the Convent. Given how young the girls were, and the author's ability to convey the emotions and thoughts that she experienced at the time, the first paragraphs of the book really struck me as being extremely sad.
As the book progresses, the author tells the tales from her childhood with such creative imagery and descriptive writing contained within them that I felt able to understand how she felt as a young girl experiencing such an awful chain of events. This, again, added a very personal touch to the story overall and by the final chapters I felt that I understood the character of the now adolescent Frances quite well, as a result. I found that this really helped me to sympathise with the unspeakable abuse and mental torture that was delivered to Frances on a near-daily basis, as her descriptive writing was so captivating that I felt that she was 'sharing' her story with me rather than writing it down in a more matter-of-fact manner.
To be clear, this book is not one with a self-pitying tone throughout; nor is it reminiscent of a "Poor Me, I'm A Victim" type tale that I have stumbled across before. On the contrary; I found that "Suffer the Little Children" is actually quite an enjoyable read, and a little humour can be found here and there in the author's reminiscing about her attempts to escape the convent, such as the time that a small group of girls, including Frances, dressed in nuns' clothing and tried to 'smuggle' themselves out the Convent gates, rather oblivious to the fact that their habits didn't fit properly and they were tripping over the hem of their black gowns.
This humour is quite scarce however, and the story does have a very serious main plot, of course. The sheer level of neglect that the girls suffered from beggars belief in itself, but to take into account the level of abuse - both physical and emotional, as well as the mental torture and complete and utter cruelty that was served to the youngsters day after day is difficult to digest. There were a few points in the book that made for very unpleasant reading, and I could quite understand if the book proved to be too much for some tastes. It's true to say that if you are looking for a light-hearted read, then you won't find it on Frances Reilly's pages; what you WILL find however, is a well-constructed, engaging account of a difficult childhood that will most likely stay with you for a long time, lasting until well after the book has been closed.....
* RECOMMENDED? *
In a word - Yes.
I found this book to be quite gripping and I struggled to put it down. It is perhaps fair to say that not everyone would be comfortable with the descriptions of physical abuse given by the author, and indeed, I found that the content could be quite unsettling to read at times, but I think that this content is quite necessary to really convey the sheer level of humiliation and suffering felt by the author. I think that books like this are a bit of a 'marmite' choice and it is either the type of book that you find is a gripping read, or you simply don't enjoy reading of other peoples' hardships and give books like this a wide berth.
The only aspect of the book that I felt was slightly lacking was the ending. I felt that it would have been quite nice to know a little more about how Frances got on after she left the Convent, but I suppose this might be an unfair remark as the book IS about her life in the Convent and her upbringing at the hands of the nuns within.
Similarly, I was slightly disappointed that the epilogue at the end of the book was a mere three and a half pages long; I would have much preferred to know much more about the author's battle to make the Poor Sisters of Nazareth Order answer to their accusers, and I would also have liked to have known a little more about the path - emotional as well as practical - that the author had to take in getting her story made public. I also would have liked a little more information about how the author coped when she was free from the Convent. To be fair, she has certainly touched on these matters, but a little depth to the ending would have been a welcome find, for me anyway.
Perhaps these apparent omissions were deliberate. Perhaps the author didn't want anything - however small a detail - to take the reader's attention from the unimaginable horrors in the main body of the story..? Whether deliberate or not, overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading the touching tale of Frances and her friends, and I would recommend the book quite highly as a result.
A little while ago, I watched a film called the Magdalene Sisters, about young teenage girls who were sent to Magdalene Laundries - convents run by Nuns in Ireland where they would be expected to work off their sins by doing laundry, which would make money for the nuns . I reviewed the film, and someone commented that if I found the film interesting, I should read some of the books written by girls who had suffered in this way.
I actually purchased this book mistakenly, thinking it dealt with the subject of the Magdalene Laundries - it is in fact slightly different. As opposed to being a child judged 'unruly' and placed in a convent run laundry to work off her misbehaviour, Frances commited no sin other than being a child her mother, whose husband was away fighting in the war, simply couldn't cope with . Dropped off at the orphanage doors with her two sisters, one older and one younger, she could have no idea of the abuse she was about to endure.
Punished for every percieved misdemeanor by a vicious attempt to 'beat the devil' out of her, or by being locked in a cleaning cupboard and ordered to stand still for hours, Frances begins to rebel, earning her yet more punishments such as being ordered to stay up all night cleaning hundred of pairs of shoes. Beaten in lessons for being behind, her education suffers, and moments that should provide a welcome respite - holidays with a farming family - bring only more pain as Frances is sexually abused by the men of the household.
Then one day, Frances is told to pack her bags . Too unruly for the nuns at this particular convent to handle , she is send off to a convent run remand school, where, with other rebellious older girls, she formulates a plan to escape .
The book has a very matter of fact tone throughout - while the scenes described are certainly harrowing, there is very little self pity here . Instead Frances clearly explains how the actions of the nuns affected her, and how miserable every day life was.
The book is very readable. However, I felt that it ended very abruptly with her eventual escape and successful court case against the nuns . I would have liked to have seen a little more in the book about her adult life - whether the experiences she's had as a child had affected her ability to form relationships, for example, or had any influence on the way she interacted with her own two sons. I would also have been interested as to how this treatment made her look at the Catholic religion she was raised in - having read recently many books involving abuse within religions, the question of how faith strengthens, or indeed weakens someone in these situations has been one that has interested me greatly .
Overall I think this is a very readable book, though I feel it could do with a little more deoth in places, and could have done with a couple of chapters at the end to sum up the experience and explain where Frances is in her life right now .
3 stars .
Title quote from St Teresa of Avila .