Book Review - The Saint of Lost Things

Tish Delaney writes perceptively about childhood trauma, how it prohibits emotional growth, and how it taints adult relationships. In her 2021 debut, Before My Actual Heart Breaks, which won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, an overbearing Catholic mother is the cause of her daughter Mary’s woes. In Delaney’s assured follow-up, The Saint of Lost Things, it is Granda Morris — an irascible farmer who hates women and yearns for a male heir to inherit his farm — that terrifies the wits out of his female family members. 

Northern Ireland is once again the backdrop and Lindy is another victim of a strict Catholic farming household who make her feel worthless. It all starts with Lindy’s mother, Babs, who brings shame to the family for having a child out of wedlock. The shame is particularly great as the father is “a traveller, not of the world just the roads of Ireland, a king of the long acre . . . a gypsy”. Lindy is repeatedly punished for the “sins” of her mother and is constantly referred to as “the wrong child”. 

She finds no release until, aged 18, she escapes with her best friend Miriam, signing up to be a nursing auxiliary worker in London. There she briefly enjoys the freedom of being apart from her detractors and austere upbringing. However, echoes of the past continue to haunt Lindy. An ill-judged relationship and one careless moment bring everything crashing down and, to escape destitution, Lindy is forced to return to Northern Ireland. 

Granda Morris exiles Lindy and Auntie Bell, her mother’s twin, to a remote corner of his land and builds them a bungalow “on a slip of plot that could never be properly drained of the bog water that keeps the brown burn swollen”. Bell is instructed to keep Lindy “under surveillance”. Delaney tracks back and forth in time. At the start of the novel, Lindy, in her early fifties, has no privacy, few friends and endures weekly tea with Bell and her elderly “wimmin”. 

Lindy’s part-time job at the Ballyglen Credit Union is a crushing bore and her sole respite is seeing Miriam, now a grandmother: “She’s the only one who understands why I like to tear a little hole now and again. I know it’s only to let the poison out, she says, and point-blank refuses to entertain any of the chat about me being disturbed. She clings to the word ‘deep’ and keeps paddling.” Delaney is superb at withholding information. Gradually we learn of the secrets that have sown such discord in Lindy’s life, the decisions that prevent her from moving on, and the damage that leads her back to the Clinic — the psychiatric hospital in Derry. 

 The destructive impulses driving Delaney’s characters — Morris’s desire to accrue and protect his land, Bell’s desire to save face, whatever the cost — reap a bitter harvest. Dishonest priests are also a recurring theme. Originally from Co Tyrone and a former journalist with the FT, Delaney moved to the Channel Islands to pursue her writing career. She has already finished her fourth novel. If her first two are anything to go by, Delaney has a long and fruitful career ahead of her. 

Originally published by the FT