All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
On her seventeenth birthday, Dublin teenager Deena Rys accidentally comes out as gay to her father; he doesn’t react well. Later that day, she confides in her older sister, Mandy, who is also appalled — not because she’s gay, per se, but because she’s been researching the family history and has come to a frightening conclusion. Mandy believes there’s a curse on all the Rys women who don’t fit in, and that something terrible happens to all of these “bad apples” at the age of seventeen.
The next morning Mandy is seen jumping from a cliff on the far side of the country.
No body is found, but the note Mandy left for Deena sure looks like a suicide note, and the family presumes her dead. Everyone except Deena, that is, who steadfastly believes her sister is still alive, a belief that is bolstered when she finds another note from Mandy. In the envelope with the note is a story, part of the Rys family history, and it leads Deena to another location where the next piece of the narrative will be found.
This begins a trek across Ireland, during which Deena learns more about the Rys history and sees the places where important events unfolded. She is joined eventually by her best friend, Finn, and two girls whose identity is best left unspoiled for now. (Being from the US, I had to mentally recalibrate my ideas about distances and remind myself that yes, it’s plausible that a teenager could get all the way across Ireland in a few hours by train. We’re not talking New York to California here.) At each site, there’s a note from Mandy, with more of the story. Time is running out, though. Not only are the teens’ excuses for being gone from home starting to wear thin, but Deena is seeing signs of the banshees that herald the curse.
What Deena and her friends learn is tragic, and often infuriating. Moïra Fowley-Doyle highlights the mistreatment that was often meted out to women if they became pregnant out of wedlock (whether consensually or not), were rumored to be witches, or were lesbians. Nor does she leave out the ways men were harmed by society’s expectations; for example, if they were too quiet and sensitive, or born to unmarried mothers. Sometimes the victim in one generation becomes the abuser in the next. While some of the particulars are specific to Ireland (such as the Magdalene laundries), these are issues that have arisen in many times and places, and are still relevant today.
Intertwined with this history is the present-day mystery of what really did happen to Mandy, and why. There were two times I thought the author had made a mistake. They’re not mistakes. They’re clues. The ending has several big twists, all of which make sense. I had guessed a couple of them early, but Fowley-Doyle did such a good job of misdirection that, by the time they were revealed, I’d convinced myself they were not true.
Fowley-Doyle describes her work as magical realism, and I think that fits. All the Bad Apples (2019) combines real-world social issues with ambiguous touches of the supernatural. I loved the way the Rys history was tied in with the traditional lore of what a banshee does — they don’t just scream! The screaming is relevant too, though, because in the end this is story about the power of one’s voice, and the power of storytelling, as a weapon against repression.
I’m definitely going to get this book!