Although Border Crossings is her debut novel, Carole Bellacera is an established author of short fiction and a screenwriter. The book was shelved in the romance section of my local bookstore, but it might be more correctly designated as a work of women’s fiction than romance. In contrast to the usual formula for romances -- a man and woman meet and fall in love -- Border Crossings tells the story of a marriage and family under enormous stress. Set in Northern Ireland in the early 1990's, the story focuses on the O’Faolain family -- Pearse and his American wife, Kathy, their young son Sean, and Pearse’s grandmother, father, siblings, and other relations.
When the story opens, Pearse is a history professor at Trinity College in Dublin; Kathy works at a youth center. When his brother and sister-in-law are gunned down by Protestant terrorists in their home in front of their children, Pearse and Kathy travel to his family home in Enniskillen, a town in Northern Ireland. Kathy is dismayed to discover that Erin, Pearse’s sister who is probably active in the IRA, is encouraging her brother to return home to assume his assassinated brother’s place with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. Kathy tries to convince him that their home is now in Dublin, that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not their concern, but Pearse insists that he must and will move to Enniskillen.
It is not long before Kathy is confronted with the dangerous realities of her new life. She tries to reach out to Aisling, Pearse’s artistically talented niece who became mute when her parents were killed in front of her. Two British soldiers are murdered on the street close to Kathy, possibly precipitating her miscarriage. Pearse’s two sisters will suffer for the men they love. Kathy tries to walk a fine line between her Catholic family members and her tolerance for their traditional adversaries. She resolves to make a positive difference in the embittered community by opening a social center for both Catholic and Protestant youth.
But one Protestant activist is nursing an old grudge and is targeting the O’Faolain family in particular. The threat to Kathy’s family and the ones they love will precipitate a crisis.
From my perspective as an American, confident in the constitutional protections that implies, it seems inconceivable that two Christian denominations could hate to the point of fighting and killing each other, all in the name of religion. What gives Border Crossings such emotional impact is that the heroine is also an American with similar attitudes to mine. Over the course of the story, she will undergo changes in her convictions as she is forced to confront the ever-constant fear generated by the violence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
Kathy is an admirable heroine -- principled, loyal, and willing to accept sacrifice for the ones she loves. Her legitimate fears for her husband and child bring a strong sense of reality to the story. The decisions she makes are understandable in light of her experiences and convictions.
Pearse is less easily understood. Determined to act on his feelings of obligation towards his family, he refuses to acknowledge the severe risks he’s exposing his wife and son to. For a scholar and academic, he seems too willing too quickly to embrace and make excuses for the mentality of violence that consumes the Catholic culture of Northern Ireland. Because they are already married at the beginning of the story, there’s virtually no explanation of why Kathy and Pearse fell in love. There’s no doubt the love is there, but they seem mismatched in their attitudes and beliefs towards the conflict between Catholic, Protestant, and the British occupation.
Other characters play an important part in Border Crossings. Pearse’s sister Erin and niece Aisling have major roles and depict the psychological and emotional damage that can arise from such brutal conflict.
The Northern Ireland setting is a fundamental part of this story. Detailed description of the physical setting receives relatively little attention, but the somber mood of living day to day with the ever-present threat of guns and bombs pervades the narrative.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. Border Crossings begins with a scene of appalling violence, and there a various others during the course of the story. For those readers, however, who welcome a novel that deals with difficult themes, I definitely recommend it.