A debut draped in drama and dark family secrets, Sarah Armstrong’s The Insect Rosary is far more exciting than the simple cover would suggest. The novel is set in Northern Ireland, in 1982, at the time of The Troubles. Although the historical significance contributes to the unsettling tone of the novel, this is a mere backdrop to the smaller-scale familial drama. The mysterious events on the family farm unravel delicately with each chapter, as the blurb suggests: “The events of the past gradually and menacingly reveal why [the] sisters have not spoken to each other since that last disturbing summer together.”
The structure of The Insect Rosary is unusual. It is narrated by the two sisters 30 years apart from each other, causing the novel to read almost like two separate stories. The past and present intertwine seamlessly, however; as we learn of past events and young sibling bonds, we also witness the devastation these same events have on family relationships years later. The duality of narration allows for a difference in voice between the curious child and the more experienced adult. It also helps maintain movement and a building of suspense until we reach the predictable, yet satisfying climax.
The depiction of the farm itself, a hotbed of unanswered questions, is also dual in nature. On first sight, it seems to be a playground of out-of-bounds passages, barns and hiding places, where childish minds can plot and play, stealing cherries from old aunts, making bows and arrows and searching for kittens. However, a more sinister side is hinted at, first subtly and then growing in darkness until it obliterates the jovial side. The main characters, .particularly the narrators, are written with psychological richness and their mental states collectively become a central theme of the novel: “You made me look mad long before I was.” The effects of trauma, especially on young people, and the different ways in which we decide to deal with our grief, are handled emotionally and in depth by Armstrong. One sister becomes obsessed with proving she is not crazy, that she remembers the gruesome events of the 1980s correctly despite what her family say. The other, however, buries all she saw, to the extent that she believes she saw nothing at all. The strength of character and insight into the human mind makes the story much more gripping than it would have been if this element had been absent. I was surprised to find myself siding with each narrator in turn, relating to each when they told their side of the story. This was a skilful authorial technique, especially when contained in such short sections of text.
Unfortunately, this skill of character complexity does not extend to the ‘villain’ of the story, Tommy. Too often absent, and not well enough described, what little threat he portrays is sadly forgotten each time he appears, so losing most of the sense of horror. The dialogue sometimes seems contrived and irrelevant in sections of the novel, but this is made up for by the clever use of silences. “She wanted to tell her it only gets worse and worse. Bernie could only hate her more. Words were dangerous.” The characters often are unable, or simply refuse, to use their words, and Armstrong uses the unsaid to hook us in and build the tension which her villain and dialogue fail to create.
Ultimately, this is a book about family – a real, messed-up, complicated family. “Their father was broken, their mother cried all the time, Bernie was mad and Florence was very good at ignoring all of it.” This is not a story full of cheer, nor of gory detail and excessive bloodshed. Armstrong instead creates well-developed main characters, places them in a beautifully detailed and meaningful setting, and catalogues how the events of 1982 affect them, their relationships and their futures.