I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
I sometimes feel bad when I write a review for a young adult book that I didn’t enjoy. After all, I’m certainly not the target audience. At the same time, I do believe that a great book transcends its target audience and can be enjoyed regardless of age. Therefore, I’m going to write a negative review of All the Bad Apples without feeling too bad.
What the book is trying to do: Draw attention to the atrocities of Irish history. The Magdalen laundries, the abuse of women and babies, the crimes committed in the name of religious morals. Create a sense of magic or magic realism. Draw connections between age old abuses and the struggles of modern women, particularly in the queer community.
It’s a lot. It’s ambitious. It’s pretty heavy-handed.
I’m all for magic writing and magic realism. Convince me even a little bit and I’ll buy all the way in. My problem with All the Bad Apples is that the magic showed up too late. I was never sure what was supposed to be real and what was a mass hallucination or a straight up lie from our narrator. The story has a small but important twist toward the end that is overall well done but throws the reliability of everything that’s come before into doubt. This is also right around the same point that the magical elements ramp up. I honestly ended the book feeling like the whole story was most likely the imagination of a grief-stricken and insane teenager.
Deena is our protagonist and narrator. She accidentally reveals that she’s gay to her very conservative father on her seventeenth birthday. Shortly thereafter (or the same day?) her favourite sister, Mandy, disappears and is believed to have committed suicide. The family holds a funeral but the next day (or several days later? the timeline was really confusing to me) Deena finds a later from Mandy, sending her on a trip through Ireland and into their family’s past. Mandy believed that the women in their family were under a curse, that the “bad apples” would be struck from the family tree. Deena believes Mandy is still alive.
The family history goes back to the late nineteenth century and those parts of the book are pretty interesting as a way to delve into Irish history and its intense church and state relationship. The story does end up feeling overwrought because apparently every scandal or abuse that could happen in that era happens to the women in this family. Illegitimate pregnancies, rape, incest, witches, lesbian relationships, abortions, babies raised in orphanages. In four generations, this family really does it all.
The end result is a tale that feels kind of preachy. It’s an attempt to look into the history of Ireland and how recent that history truly is. That’s a great and valuable thing for people to learn, especially young people who might feel isolate and alone with what they perceive to be their own abnormalities. Unfortunately, the result ends up feeling quite preachy. Are there people out there defending Magdalen laundries and the theft of babies? Is anyone rooting for the abusive authorities or the systems that shunned and abandoned young girls? It’s possible I just don’t know enough about Ireland as it is today but part of the problem is that the beginning of the novel does not make it clear that this is a book about Irish history. Both the tone and the trajectory of the book seem to change quite a bit until we are pushed, confused, into this rather pat ending of being told it’s okay to be different and it’s wrong to bury babies in unmarked graves.
This isn’t Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s first book and I’m sure this one will find an audience of young women who it speaks to. Perhaps it is needed there and so it may be a good thing. It wasn’t for me.