Siobhan Doyle grew up with her Uncle Kee at their family pub, the Leeside, in rural Ireland. Kee has been staunchly overprotective of Siobhan ever since her mother's death in an IRA bombing, but now that she's an adult, it's clear that in protecting her, Kee has unwittingly kept her in a state of arrested development. The pair are content to remain forever in their quiet haven, reading and discussing Irish poetry, but for both Siobhan and Kee, fate intervenes.
A visiting American literary scholar awakens Siobhan to the possibility of a fulfilling life away from The Leeside. And her relationship with Kee falters after the revelation that her father is still alive. In the face of these changes, Siobhan reaches a surprising decision about her future. Lyrical and heartfelt, Kathleen Anne Kenney's Girl on the Leeside deserves a place alongside contemporary literature's best-loved coming-of-age novels.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
Come away, O human child!
To the woods and waters wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
—w. b. yeats
Siobhan breathed in the cool lough mist, feeling the moistness fill her lungs and seep into her soul. It was her tonic. Sitting on the low stone wall that hugged the lee side of the lough, she was surrounded by the mist. In grammar school, when she had studied Saint Francis and learned how he had referred to other creatures as Brother Otter or Sister Dove, she started to think of the mist as Sister Mist.
The lough shore was Siobhan’s favorite of all her special places. It was here that the poems came to her. She felt them emerge from the mist, or rise from the surface of the water, or descend from the surrounding mountains. They nestled in her mind because she welcomed them gently, nurturing and encouraging, so that when she put pen to paper she only had to write down what was already inside her.
But today she felt an unfamiliar longing, not the secure serenity she always associated with this place. It made her uneasy. Siobhan had always been content here, living with Uncle Keenan by the shores of her lough. Why today did she feel as if a strange new dimension had thrust its way into her life? A sense no longer of just living but of waiting. Waiting for something--or someone. Siobhan was wary of strangers.
For more than three hundred years imperceptible evolution, like water on a stone, had transformed the Leeside from an old coaching inn into a quiet neighborhood pub. In its early days it sheltered travelers between Clifden and Galway, and secretly harbored the occasional smuggler. But the nineteenth-century famine and poverty in the west, followed by the advent of motorized transport, had isolated it from all but the locals, who finally claimed it as their own. So for the people who had known it all their lives, the pub was the same now as it had always been. Siobhan loved that about the Leeside; it was her rock, her island. Uncle Kee had enisled them both upon it.
Siobhan was, at this moment, standing behind the bar, washing the interminable glasses. She looked around, as she often did, silently chanting her self-made mantra: “I love living here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I love living here. I can’t image living anywhere else. I love living here . . .” Each rendition was another granite pebble in her wall of isolation, another layer of protection.
Siobhan knew that oddness was the cornerstone of her identity. She felt strangers smell her apprehension. People who knew her tolerated her introversion, but to many it seemed out of place in someone who worked in a pub. Siobhan tolerated contact with people she knew for the simple reason that they were unavoidable. Her interactions with friends of her uncle or regulars at the pub were mere ripples on the surface of her sea-chasm of isolation. She smiled vaguely at jokes, ignored banter, and often appeared to be of subnormal intelligence with her air of detached, blank pleasantness. She caught the fleeting looks of puzzlement or pity, and was unconcerned by them. Siobhan knew she was peculiar. How could it have been otherwise? She had no mother. For her, this explained everything. How could she be like the other children? She had no mother. For that matter, she had no father either, only Uncle Kee. She’d lived with him since a week before her second birthday, twenty-five years ago.
Siobhan couldn’t remember that day. Uncle Kee never talked about it. On her seventh birthday--her “golden birthday,” seven on the seventh of April--she’d nerved herself to ask him the question. What she wanted as a gift this year was information.
“Uncle Kee, why did Mamsy die?”
Holding hands, they were standing next to her mother’s grave, which was next to her grandparents’, in Saint Brendan’s churchyard. They visited the graves each year on Siobhan’s birthday, early in the morning. Looking down at her, he gave the bare bones of an explanation as to how her mother died, and why she had come to live with him. “Mamsy died in an IRA bombing . . . and also your da. So I came to fetch you to come live here with me.”
He squeezed her hand and she regarded him with wide, grave eyes. “Why isn’t my da buried here as well?”
Uncle Kee blinked and shifted his gaze to the headstone: here lies maureen nora doyle. beloved daughter, sister, and mother. flying with the angels. After a moment or two he cleared his throat and shrugged slightly. “I never knew him, love.” He squeezed her hand again and smiled down at her. “So, there you are, then. Any questions?” Only a thousand. “Right. Off to school with you.”
They turned and began walking toward the school. So that was that. He had explained matters--but not actually answered her question. As she let go of his hand to go inside, he suddenly squatted down.
“One more thing, love. You’re seven now and I should be telling you this. I named you Siobhan. Your mamsy and her . . . your da called you Susan. But it didn’t suit you at all. Not in my book. So I named you after Auntie Siobhan.”
“Susan is an English name,” she said.
Siobhan nodded and left him. She understood that Uncle Kee wouldn’t want her to have an English name. Susan. She puzzled over the word. It sounded vaguely familiar but that was all. It held no value or singular meaning. It didn’t sound like a real name, not the name of anyone she would know.
But she had gotten some answers because now she was seven and had been brave enough to ask. The reason she had no mother was because her mum had been killed. Killed. Not just died of cancer or in childbirth or something ordinary like that. She’d been killed--and not by getting hit by a bus crossing the road or in a car smash. By a bomb--an IRA bomb. Siobhan knew what the IRA was, of course. She always watched the evening news in the pub and read the newspapers. Uncle Kee never censored her reading material. The more she knew about the world outside, he said, the more she would appreciate living at the Leeside. In fact, he often pointed out news stories about young women being killed or hurt. Once he even told her about a former girlfriend of his who’d been murdered in Dublin. “Picked the wrong bastard to fall in love with, she did. Some people wear charm like a second skin and that kind are always trouble, darlin’. Just another reason to give most folks a wide berth.”
Soon after her birthday Siobhan started writing MMWKBAB in tiny letters in her school notebooks, which stood for My Mother Was Killed By A Bomb. Tiny, tiny letters they were, in the margins of all her notebooks. Finally, inevitably, she wrote it on her arm in indelible ink, like a brand. In her neatest printing, as if she were proud of it. But she kept it carefully hidden under the long starched sleeve of her white uniform blouse. After two weeks it was still there; she was careful to wash around it. Then one of the nuns noticed it.
“What’s that writing on your arm? Are you cheating, Siobhan?”
No, no, Sister. Just doodling , I am.
Sister Mary Sebastian helped her wash it off in the girl’s bathroom with strong yellow soap and righteous scrubbing, until her skin was butcher raw.
Thank you, Sister.
Siobhan finished drying the last of the glasses; they hung like jewels in their appointed places. She always did her work thoroughly and well, not for her own satisfaction but to ease Uncle Kee’s burden and because of Time. Siobhan and Time were kindred spirits. It wound itself slowly around her, never varying its pace in her universe. Time stretched itself, unfolding and expanding, luxuriating in its freedom from its own boundaries. For Siobhan, Time was a friend and, in its turn, Time bestowed itself like a gift on her and never outpaced her, as she saw it do to so many others.
The glasses finished, Siobhan went through the swinging door into the kitchen to prepare the meat pies and sausage rolls for tonight’s customers. Because she could daydream, Siobhan preferred cleaning to cooking; the latter demanded her full attention. Once, when she was seventeen, she mortified herself and Uncle Kee by forgetting to add salt and suet to the meat pies--they were inedible. She had never forgotten his pained, humiliated expression, although he had murmured to her that it was all right. She had solemnly vowed never to let it happen again.
The back door banged and she heard Uncle Kee’s voice coming from the mudroom.
“Siobhan! What are you doing?”
“I’m cutting the meat for the pies. Why?”
His ruddy face ducked into the doorway, wearing a pleased expression. “Because I’ve got news, darlin’. We’re going to have a guest tomorrow. An overnight guest here at the pub. So we’ll have to clean out that extra room.”
“A guest?” Siobhan looked at him blankly, her bloodstained hands paused in her work. She felt the familiar tightening in her stomach. A stranger? Staying here at the Leeside?
“Is it someone we know?” Siobhan asked without hope.
Uncle Kee shook his big head. “No, but don’t be afraid, now. It’ll not be like that other time. It’s someone we’ll both enjoy meeting. An American professor of Irish studies. He wants to come here to meet me. Sean is sending him down.”
“But we don’t let rooms,” she said tonelessly.
“I know,” he said quickly. “But it’s only for two nights, and Sean says he’s great altogether. He’s been staying in Clifden and eating at Sean’s restaurant every night for a week. Sean told him about our study of Irish literature and he wants to come. It’ll be grand, you’ll see.”
Siobhan looked at her uncle’s flushed face, trying to push down the panic. He didn’t get excited very often. Having the man to stay would be all right. She wouldn’t mind, she wouldn’t. It would be all right--no need to have doubts. This professor and Uncle Kee would spend all their time together talking about his greatest hobby, the study of Irish literature. This was an interest she herself shared, especially poetry. She took a deep breath.
“It does sound grand, Uncle Kee. You’ll have a brilliant time with the man. Are you knowing anything else about him?” She resumed her slicing carefully, her hands shaking a little. Not everyone was like that other man.
“I’ll tell you later at tea. I’ll just be clearing the junk out of that room from now until then. Then we can give it a good going-over together, so.” He started pulling off his muddy boots.
Uncle Kee started up the back stairs and Siobhan heard his head smack against a low beam.
“Ah, goddammit!” she heard him mutter.
Siobhan smiled in spite of herself at his outburst. She thought he must be very excited to forget to watch his head going up the stairs. Keenan Doyle had to be careful coming through the doorways of the Leeside, too, for he wasn’t a thread under six foot six and the Leeside was built in the days when he would have been considered a giant. He always seemed to fill any room he was in, and told her many times how his mother lamented that she’d spawned a son who didn’t fit the scale of their home. We should have named you after the giant Finn MacCool, she’d say. Uncle Kee himself often commented drily that he’d developed quite a thick skull from cracking his head on the low oak beams.
But Siobhan loved his bigness, his protective bulk. She vaguely remembered when she was very small, being awed by his size and amazed by the gentleness of his touch. He acted as if he were afraid of breaking her, wondering at her little-girl fragility. She, in turn, had been circumspect in her physical approach to him, sensing his strength and power. He would never hurt her intentionally, this she knew, but his massive size was daunting and she was shy of it, though not of him. Her mother had been tiny, as Siobhan was, and Siobhan remembered her quicksilver touch, sometimes impatient, tugging her here and there, pulling or pushing on clothes and shoes, snatching Siobhan up to bestow quick hugs and kisses.
As she grew older, Siobhan was less intimidated by Uncle Kee’s size and began to delight in his bulk, climbing around on him as if he were a living set of monkey bars. She felt like a feather in his strong hands. She sensed that he loved her smallness and she was glad she wasn’t growing much taller. They were comfortable with each other’s sizes. Then as her school years progressed, and Siobhan became prepubescent, she grew reticent about physical play with him after the nuns taught proper behavior for young ladies. Strange, mysterious feelings were eluded to with sinister ambiguity. This new physical shyness began her retreat within.
Siobhan brushed a stray wisp of her black hair from her face. She wore it pulled back most of the time to keep it out of her way. Her hair hung almost to her knees and when untethered, draped like a cloak around her. She was a tiny, pale woman with grave, clouded eyes and limbs like kindling. Her one friend, Maura Doherty, once told her that for a long time she’d thought Siobhan was a fairy or kelpie who would one day disappear back into her fairy mound to be lost forever. They had laughed at the silliness of it.
Years of helping Uncle Kee in the pub had developed Siobhan’s stamina; she was much stronger than she looked. From a very early age she was determined to help him, to do her part, to make his life easier. His grateful smiles were the sun in her world.
After the meat pies had baked, Siobhan escaped outside to sit in one of the old basket chairs. The Leeside was a plain, two-story pub, built of gray stone with a slate roof. It sat within an embrace of hills, at once soft and rugged, at the edge of a dark, narrow lough. The pale sky spread like a domed canopy over it all and sent breezes down to ripple the surface of the water and the surrounding tall grasses in concordant rhythm. The pub wasn’t situated in the village of Carnloe itself but was almost two miles down the lough road, which was little more than a cart track. This enhanced its atmosphere of isolation.
Reading Group Guide
1. How do past experiences influence the actions of the characters?
2. Is Siobhan’s innocence believable? Why or why not?
3. How does the way Siobhan sees herself differ from how others see her? How do you see Siobhan?
4. What motivates Kee’s actions? Do you think his actions are justified or ethical?
5. Which character in the book do you think undergoes the most fundamental change--and why?
6. In terms of the plot, do events unfold quickly or is more effort spent developing characters' inner lives? Does it affect your enjoyment of the book?
7. If you could meet and talk with one of the characters, who would it be? Why?
8. Was there a passage or scene that struck you particularly, either emotionally or because of something you learned about rural Ireland or Irish culture?
9. Did the book have an overarching theme? If so, was it adequately explored?
10. Did anything surprise you about the book?
11. Are there any books to which you’d compare this one?
12. How did you respond to this author’s style of writing?
13. What did you take away from this book?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Girl on the Leeside: A Novel by [Kenney, Kathleen Anne]Such a moving book. This is the story of Siobhan Doyle, who was raised by her Uncle Kee. Her mother was killed in an IRA bombing which has led Kee to be protective of Siobhan. These two share a love for the lough, the Leeside, their pub, and Irish poetry. Kee come home filled with the exciting news that a literary scholar from America is coming to stay. This fills Siobhan with mixed feelings. She has no love for Americans and does not want someone to come and destroy her idyllic life.When he appears Siobhan realizes that there is so much more life away from Leeside and her uncle. Then she discovers that her father is still alive. Now she is filled with questions when it comes to her future. This book grabbed me from the prologue and the introduction of Kee and his sister's mother and their early life. This gave me a feeling of truly knowing this family and to feel the ties that Kee and Siobhan would have. The author was able to create a world that was so well-written that I could visually the world surrounding Kee and Siobhan without any effort. Plus the poetry that is inserted effortlessly throughout helps further draw the reader into the magical world that is Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I give it a high recommendation. I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney is a recommended deferred-coming-of-age story for a woman in Ireland. Siobhan Doyle has been living with her Uncle Kee since her mother died when she was two years-old. Now twenty-seven, she helps her Uncle Kee run the family pub. The two also share a passion for reading and discussing Irish folklore and poetry together. Until Tim Ferris, an American professor of Irish literature, arrives to discuss poetry with her Uncle, Siobhan has been protected by Uncle Kee, content to live and work at the pub, while keeping to herself, and secretly writing her own poetry. Now she may be opening herself up to the world and new experiences for the first time. Suddenly some secrets may be revealed and her future may hold more options than simply working at the pub. Pluses include the lovely writing and the Irish poetry sprinkled throughout the novel. Minuses include the many mentions of Siobhan's small stature, long hair, and fairy-like appearance. It is a stretch to also believe that today someone would be as naive and sheltered as Siobhan is portrayed here - but then this is fiction. The dialogue is a bit stilted at times and, although this is a coming-of-age story, it is the "lite" version. There are a few too many unrealistic circumstances for my tastes. If you like novels that are light, gentle reads about Ireland, Irish poetry, and a late first romantic interest, then this may be a nice choice to bring along on your summer vacation. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Nan A. Talese.