Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Reviewed: The Ballroom Cafe by Ann O'Loughlin.

The Ballroom Cafe was published by Black and White Publishing in paperback on June 18, 2015.

Thanks to Janne at Black and White Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review for the blog tour.

When I started reading The Ballroom Café, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the story. Ella and Roberta are sisters, sisters who haven’t spoken to each other for decades though we don’t know why. Any communication between them is done via short, snappy and terse notes they leave each other – and there was never anything nice they had to say to or about each other. I began this book finding myself frustrated with how childish they both were and I think I expected to find it quite tiring, especially with Roberta’s attitude as she was a character I just couldn’t warm to. But this is why I always keep reading because from about fifty pages in, The Ballroom Café turned into such a wonderful page-turner of a novel. Such extraordinary secrets were laced into the stories of the O’Callaghan family and there was another character, in Debbie, who charmed me and had an incredibly touching story herself, one that engrossed me and surprised me.

Debbie, an American in search of her birth mother, finds herself drawn into the Ballroom Café as she develops a lovely, endearing friendship with Ella who runs the place. Debbie is not in a good way and doesn’t have much time to find her mother but she couldn’t help but lose herself a little bit in the café and she so easily won over almost everyone who met her. She begins work at the café and my favourite part of this book was seeing her become great friends with Ella – there was good humour between them both but also the caring, supportive side which was needed between two women going through such a strong level of upheaval in their lives.

I think the friendship between Ella and Debbie was the reason I really struggled to like Roberta because although we don’t at first know the circumstances that has caused such an issue between the two sisters, we get to see a lighter and more friendly side to Ella whereas Roberta didn’t seem to have a good word to say about anything or anyone. Having said that, there were glimpses of the love and protectiveness Roberta did have for her sister in the occasional moment when she would ask after her to Ella’s friends and whilst I can’t say I ever liked her, I grew to get a better understanding of her character.

Judge a book by its cover and you will be expecting a light, delicate story within The Ballroom Café and whilst it is a very moving book, there is a devastating adoption scandal brought to light which left me stunned. It was so shocking and heart-breaking at the same time – such an incredibly powerful piece of the plot and this book was so very unpredictable – I could not guess what was about to be revealed next. Ann O’Loughlin’s writing was a thing of beauty – so mesmerising, so intriguing – and the way the tender tone to her writing contrasted with the harsh realities in the novel worked beautifully. I started the book feeling a little wary, a little anxious I wasn’t going to enjoy it and yet I ended the novel utterly enthralled and so disappointed it had ended! The Ballroom Café was a brilliant read.

A poignant tale of secrets which damage the bonds between families - told with an unpredictability that made this book impossible for me to put down.

Characters have a way of sneaking in to my head and setting up home.

Once the idea has taken root, the people who populate the novel move in, one by one.

They slip in quietly. It is not until they start to talk, argue, laugh and cry that the fingers can do the walking across the keyboard.

Some writers use story boards, plaster walls with notes or fill notebooks full of interesting phrases and ideas to use at an appropriate time. Some writers sketch a picture of their characters with words. They even know before they write the first line of chapter one their main characters, the traits, foibles and eccentricities that will make them stand out. They also know the storyline and all the minor characters who weave their way through the pages of the book. Some writers are extra lucky; they even know the ending.

How I wish it was like that for me. The story; the characters and the twists and turns; all of it rattles inside my head, competing for my attention, only revealing themselves as we move along, getting the first words down.

If the idea is going to work, the characters lead the way, design their own destinies. Only when they are shouting loud and bossing me senseless am I satisfied that I am getting my best writing done.

It was like that all the way through The Ballroom Café. First Ella O’Callaghan appeared; that stubborn, gentle, proud woman who loved her home Roscarbury Hall, Rathsorney, Co Wicklow and would do anything to stop the bank repossessing it. In her quiet moments, her voice inside my head is barely a whisper. When she was agitated, the memories powered a strong voice. I cried when she cried; I laughed when she laughed.

Ella and her sister Roberta had not spoken in decades. They only communicated through short, sharp and often harsh notes, but a mountain of hurt was behind the terse, silent communication. It was up to me to help unfold the past and show what had destroyed this once loving sisterly love. Roberta, who carried big handbags and swigged sherry most of the day needled her way in to my head, through her caustic observations about her sister and the notes she slapped down on the hall table. But it was also clear that raw pain and hurt had made her this way. When Ella starts a café in the upstairs ballroom to bring in some desperately needed cash, Roberta is furious.

In to this café one days walks an American, Debbie Kading. Hiding her own secrets, she spoke to me in a quieter, but equally forceful way, making me delve in to why she so desperately needed to trace her roots.

Even the ladies who rushed up the driveway to get the best seats in the Ballroom Café fought for my attention. As they sat and gossiped over tea in china cups and plates of homemade cake, I heard their voices. Of course, Muriel Hearty who runs the local post office is the loudest in the café throwing out her gossip. She was also one of the loudest in my head trying to grab her place in the limelight.

But it was in the rewriting after the first draft that all the characters began shouting some more. Ella needed a respite from the sadness and pain and introduced me to her vast collection of vintage Weiss brooches. Throughout the book, she finds solace and refuge by unwrapping a brooch in this beautiful collection handed down from her own mother.

Roberta began to show her vulnerable side and Muriel Hearty completely lost the run of herself and had to be reined in. New characters asked to join and St Consuelo in the convent along with Sister Assumpta took on stronger roles, making me see things from their perspective.

The Ballroom Café characters became a second family to me and I was more than a little sad, when I had to let go by writing those two words ‘The End’


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