The Coast Road by Alan Murrin: Opening the door to change

Cover image for The Coast Road by Alan MurrinThree things attracted me to Alan Murrin’s The Coast Road: it’s a debut, he’s Irish and that cover suggested something small town. Set the year before Ireland’s 1995 referendum on divorce, Murrin’s novel explores the state of three marriages – two under strain and one broken – through the women whose independence is thwarted by society’s expectations.

The poor child, she thought, waking up every morning not knowing whether his mother and father would even be speaking to each other.

Ardglas is all agog when the estranged wife of the town’s wealthiest businessmen returns from Dublin, leaving her lover behind. Needing somewhere to live, Colette rents the holiday cottage overlooking the home Dolores shares with her husband, a welcome source of income given that Dolores is newly pregnant. The writing group Colette sets up attracts the wife of Donegal’s local MP. Izzy and her husband are stuck in a combat that erupts periodically to the distress of their young son. Izzy has not forgiven James for relinquishing the lease on the shop she ran in the town, frustrated now both children no longer need her at home. Desperate to see her youngest son and forbidden from contacting him by her husband, Colette begs Izzy for help. These two women, both locked into marriages which make neither of them happy, form an uneasy alliance. Loneliness and misjudgement lead to a tragedy which will mark many lives in this small town where little goes unnoticed.

It was like he had anticipated the conversation, had been preparing for her withdrawal from his life for some time. And she realised now how thoroughly she had been understood.  

We know from the start that Colette’s cottage has burnt down when the police quiz Izzy who spotted smoke in the middle of the night. From there, Murrin winds back the narrative, shifting perspectives as he unfolds his story. None of the three wives in this perceptive novel are happy in their marriages but divorce is not an option leaving them dependent on their husbands in an Ireland where women are still expected to tread a traditional path. Colette has made a bid for freedom but suffers the shutdown of all contact with her children; Lizzy’s dependence on James results in resentment and depression while Dolores is forced to turn a blind eye to the blatant infidelities of her husband. The children of these unhappy unions are all too well aware of the strife between their parents, left anxious, angry and lost. By the end of the novel, a referendum on divorce is in the offing. Its result won’t be the solution for everyone but will help some. No great literary fireworks here but I enjoyed this absorbing novel which has particularly strong cast of female characters.

Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526663702 320 pages Hardback (read Via NetGalley)

25 thoughts on “The Coast Road by Alan Murrin: Opening the door to change”

  1. I haven’t thought about that Referendum in some time, but this is a novel I would quite enjoy and appreciate too, I’m sure. I wonder if you get any of the American news, swirling around about the legal questions surrounding women’s bodily autonomy, in particular the recent legislation that now forbids women (in one state, I can’t recall which in this moment-maybe someone else here will know) from getting a divorce when they are pregnant. Trad lawmakers count on voters not knowing their history…and not reading fiction that reminds readers how quickly culture can shift, how quickly rights can be eroded.

    1. I hadn’t heard that, Marcie, although there has been some coverage of the restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. It’s very worrying. Ireland has come so far in such a short time but parts of the US seem to be intent on reversing what many of us regard as progress. For all our poitical woes in the UK, this isn’t one of them.

  2. This is Alan Murrins first novel, and sounds like an interesting read. It’s quite difficult to imagine what the 90s were like in Ireland before the Referendum on divorce. One to put on the to read list.

  3. Astonishing that divorce was still an issue as late as the 1990s in Ireland. I tend to forget what a hold the Catholic church had on social policy over there. They seem to have come on in leaps and bounds since then!

  4. A nice review. I’m drawn to Irish authors these days (so many terrific novels) but I also find myself shying away from debuts. You said there aren’t literary fireworks. Do you think that has something to do with being a first novel? Just curious.

    1. Thank you! I often read for style – use of language, structure – but this one’s a good old fashioned straightforward piece of storytelling with some excellent characterisation. I’d recommend it.

  5. I read & liked the novel too …. because of its timeframe and how tough women had it before divorce. It just shows you how miserable life was without it. I think the author has good potential.

    1. The previous few decades have seen so much social change in Ireland, haven’t they. This one makes quite a good companion to Niamh Mulvey’s The Amendments which explores reproductive rights through three generations of women.

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