Missing Persons

or, My Grandmother's Secrets

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Pub Date 02 Apr 2024 | Archive Date 16 Apr 2024

Description

Blending memoir with social history, Clair Wills movingly explores the holes in the fabric of modern Ireland, and in her own family story.

"Clair Wills shines a brilliant, unsparing light into the dark recesses of her family’s history—and the history of Ireland. Missing Persons is a stunningly eloquent exploration of how truth-telling, secret-keeping, and outright lies are part of all family stories—indeed, the stories that unite all communities—and how truths, secrets and lies can both protect and destroy us." —Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Hang the Moon

When Clair Wills was in her twenties, she discovered she had a cousin she had never met. Born in a mother-and-baby home in 1950s Ireland, Mary grew up in an institution not far from the farm where Clair spent happy childhood summers. Yet Clair was never told of Mary’s existence.

How could a whole family—a whole country—abandon unmarried mothers and their children, erasing them from history?

To discover the missing pieces of her family’s story, Clair searched across archives and nations, in a journey that would take her from the 1890s to the 1980s, from West Cork to rural Suffolk and Massachusetts, from absent fathers to the grief of a lost child.

There are some experiences that do not want to be remembered. What began as an effort to piece together the facts became an act of decoding the most unreliable of evidence—stories, secrets, silences. The result is a moving, exquisitely told account of the secrets families keep, and the violence carried out in their name.

Blending memoir with social history, Clair Wills movingly explores the holes in the fabric of modern Ireland, and in her own family story.

"Clair Wills shines a brilliant, unsparing light into the...


A Note From the Publisher

Clair Wills is the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, winner of the Irish Times International Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman History Prize, among other works. She is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. She lives in London, England.

Clair Wills is the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, winner of the...


Advance Praise

"An expertly crafted work, at once vigorous and subtle, which manages its effects and conserves its revelations with all the skill of a master novelist." —John Banville, The Guardian

"The stories [Wills] uncovers are remarkable: touching, tragic, terribly human . . . Her book, written with care, wit and vulnerability, shows that ordinary tragedies deserve our anger and attention too." —Laura Hackett, The Times (UK)

"Not just a vivid, compelling account of Clair’s family and ancestry, but an intriguing snapshot of Ireland’s social history . . . Rigorously researched . . . Empathetic." —Tanya Sweeney, Irish Independent

★ "A searing yet nuanced investigation into the lives of complicit relatives, such as her mother, as well as tender portraits of those affected. The author’s prose is stellar; her cadence complements this compelling tale, which grew increasingly complex over years of meticulous research . . . Fascinatingly, viscerally haunting." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Clair Wills shines a brilliant, unsparing light into the dark recesses of her family’s history—and the history of Ireland. Missing Persons is a stunningly eloquent exploration of how truth-telling, secret-keeping, and outright lies are part of all family stories—indeed, the stories that unite all communities—and how truths, secrets and lies can both protect and destroy us." —Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Hang the Moon

"Clair Wills retrieves from time’s abyss a speculative history of universal import. This is a penetrating and affecting study, essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand the profound contradictions, the secrets and lies that define post-famine Ireland." —Paul Lynch, author of the Booker Prize-winning Prophet Song

"This extraordinary, utterly gripping book reads like a thriller and offers the satisfactions of a mutigenerational novel. Memoir, social history, detective story, ghost story: the singular weave of Missing Persons is brilliantly animated throughout by Wills’ distinctive ethos, a kind of impassioned, rigorous, open-hearted attentiveness. Wills reads for the gaps in official stories—familial, social, institutional—and feels out the palpable absences and semi-buried violence in her family’s history. The book tracks a complex transgenerational haunting—institutionalized mothers and children, dead babies, migrant laborers, wayward men and women, land-hungry farmers, unspoken yet momentous decisions, those who left and those who stayed. Alert to the vibrations moving through her family over two centuries, Wills refuses the 'enormous condescension of posterity' (as E.P. Thompson put it) and turns the white heat of her moral intelligence toward this rich and vexed inheritance." —Maureen N. McLane, author of What You Want

"In its account of one family's history of silence and secrecy, Clair Wills has written a compelling book which demonstrates the uncanny universality of even the most personal stories. Attending to the ways that the past ruptures and grows through the present, this is a history shaken by intimacy—a brave and rigorously humane book." —Seán Hewitt, author of Rapture's Road

"If the past is a mass of tangled wool, Clair Wills frees a long strand and knits it into clarity, line by line, inviting the reader to see the complexity of the pattern she reveals. Written with elegance and erudition, Missing Persons is an extraordinary, moving achievement." —Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of To Star the Dark

"An expertly crafted work, at once vigorous and subtle, which manages its effects and conserves its revelations with all the skill of a master novelist." —John Banville, The Guardian

"The stories...


Available Editions

EDITION Other Format
ISBN 9780374611866
PRICE $27.00 (USD)
PAGES 208

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Featured Reviews

When considering the atrocities that occurred in Ireland's infamous Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes, one can't help feeling a sense of the incomprehensibility of such monstrousness on an institutional level: How could this have happened? In her new book, "Missing Persons, or My Grandmother's Secrets," Clair Wills makes this public question personal, as she investigates the dark secrets her own family kept for generations, and unearths the mothers and babies that are missing from her family's sanctioned story.

Wills, who grew up in England as the daughter of an English father and an Irish mother, spent what she remembers as halcyon summers at her Irish grandmother's dilapidated farm in County Cork. But years later, when Wills discovers that her Uncle Jackie had fathered Mary, the child of his teenage neighbor Lily, in the 1950s, and that this child and her mother were exiled to a mother and baby home and later abandoned to an orphanage, Wills sees these long-ago summers in a new and much more unflattering light. A further chance revelation about her grandmother Molly complicates Wills' memories even more, leaving her with the sense that her family's secretive history, far from being unique, was merely one of many similar stories all over Ireland that reflected the country's troubled institutional history writ small.

"Missing Persons" is hard to categorize--part memoir, part social history, part investigative account--and is at times difficult to read, but the story Willis tells deserves to find an audience, not only because she tells it so well, but because these missing persons deserve to have it told. Thank you to NetGalley and to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with an ARC of this title in return for my honest review.

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