Nicola White saw off over 350 other authors to win the 2013 Dundee International Book Prize with her debut novel, In the Rosary Garden. Based upon a notorious case of infanticide in Ireland in the 1980s, and set predominantly in White’s home town of Dublin, the plot centres on Alison Hogan or Ali for short. Since her father’s death, Ali has lived with her mother, Deidre, in a renovated bedsit. She is an intelligent and forthright girl, recently graduated from St. Brigid’s (Class of 1984) with a little less piety than should be expected, and about to study Law at college.
That, at least, is the plan until she finds herself in the Rosary Garden, a leafy sanctuary contained within the grounds of St. Brigid’s, where a dead infant has been left amongst the tools in the shed. Upon this discovery, her world descends into chaos once more. A decade ago, Ali, searching for hidden Christmas presents at her Aunt and Uncle’s house in Buleen, found a dead child in place of the doll that she’d asked for. Little was said on the topic and Ali has never been back there. Her family refused to acknowledge the past, and with the investigation obstructing her future, and her best friend, Fitz, no longer speaking to her, who can she turn to?
Leading the investigation into the child’s death is Detective Vincent Swan, a stranger to himself, at times, and a firm non-believer in Catholicism. He chalks the discovery up as a classic “dead baby in a convent”, a case of “slaughter and religion for starters with a background of sexual activity. The fact that it was one of the most affluent schools in the city brought in money and class.” With the ‘Pro-Life’ referendum in full swing, this case was likely to attract unwanted media attention. It also gives Swan a further reason for him to doubt the morality of religion.
But when one of the senior nuns, Sister O’Dwyer, confirms that the garden is kept unlocked and “has no religious use of its own… [and] the girls who use it don’t necessarily have God on their minds”, the case now encompasses the secular community outside of St. Bridgid’s. With religion creating a barrier to the truth, Swan becomes increasingly frustrated at the lack of co-operation, both within his own force and from those in the convent. Other Detective Inspectors insist that Swan shouldn’t get into one of his intellectual struggles about what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. The laws behind the walls of St. Brigid’s operate to protect the pious, regardless of the implications of the law, which leaves Swan less than impressed, especially as he is finding it impossible to remove his own recent personal tragedies from his relentless search for the killer.
After Ali breaks her vow of silence, just days after the discovery, and embarrasses herself on national television in the process, she evades the media spotlight by leaving Dublin. Her own curiosity quickly becomes overwhelming as she realises that some questions, no matter how far in the past, cannot go unanswered. Whose baby had she found? Why had it been hidden? What had happened when she left all those years ago? As Ali pieces together the fragments of her past, her future comes into focus. So too does Swan, who is hot on her heels, but he can’t decide whether she is “an innocent caught in the crossfire of other people’s desperate acts or an instigator.”
This book is every bit the page turner that you would expect from the winner of the Dundee International Book Prize. White’s gritty tale is seamless and leaves enough speculation to make everyone a possible culprit.