Weary perhaps of clichéd Irish novels about parochial narrow-mindedness, dreary weather, and economic hardship, some readers might choose to give this book a miss. That would be their loss. The Ballroom Café shows how a talented writer can treat familiar subjects in new and refreshing ways. In this impressive first novel, Ann O'Loughlin creates a gripping, life-affirming story with interlinking narratives full of sympathetic characters and shocking twists.
The story revolves around two sisters, Ella and Roberta O'Callaghan, who live in different wings of a crumbling old manor house inherited from their parents. To help pay bank debts, Ella turns the house's rarely used drawing room into a café. In her youth, Ella's parents sometimes used this big room to hold dances, hence the book's title. Spanning a few decades, the book transports the readers from this east coast rural area of Ireland to different parts of the US, but the story's focal point and anchor is always the café. There the reader meets the busybody local postmistress hungry for buttered scones and the latest gossip, and Debbie, the American woman in search of her roots, who drops in for coffee and stays to work as a temporary waitress. In the decades covered by the book, the readers encounter many other characters, each with a unique story, and some of those stories are interlinked in the most extraordinary ways.
From the start, readers are forced to ask intriguing questions: Why do the sisters not speak to each other, communicating only through cryptic notes left on the hall table? What dreadful event in the past elicits such behavior? Who is this American woman, and what is she after? Yet the book raises bigger and more confronting questions: Do people know who they really are? How sure are most people of where they came from and who the ancestors were?
As for genre, The Ballroom Café isn't easy to classify. Like a dogged work of investigative journalism, the author digs into subjects that were taboo in Ireland and hidden away until recently. It's not surprising that Ann O'Loughlin is currently legal affairs correspondent with an Irish national newspaper. The book certainly has elements of a detective thriller and of a social commentary. In the latter sense, it might be classed as "realistic fiction." Yet it's also a love story, or more precisely, a number of love stories, none of which is sappy or predictable. Perhaps for that reason, some readers might classify it as "women's fiction" especially since most of the main characters are women. That would be simplistic, however, because both men and women can easily identify with the themes and the characters.
Whatever its genre may be, The Ballroom Café is an engaging and joyful read, not least for its life-affirming subtext. It's about ordinary people with universal issues, written by an author who communicates her deep understanding of the human condition in simple, moving language.
Adam Quirk, MCJ & MBA, is a criminal justice professional with over 15 years of investigations experience.