Book Review: Requiem by Berlie Doherty

book requiemBerlie Doherty has written numerous books for children and young adults, short stories, plays and poetry. Requiem (one of only two novels which she has written for adults) was first published in 1991 and has recently been republished by Cybermouse Books. It is an intense, emotional story told from the perspective of young, talented Cecelia Deardon. Cecelia is intelligent enough to win a scholarship to the local convent school, but she will always stand out as the girl who has no money. She loves singing, but Mother Mary Rose forbids her from joining the choir, humiliating her at every opportunity.   

The novel provides a fascinating insight into a world of strict Irish Catholicism; Cecelia is constantly aware of being unworthy, afraid of sinning, afraid of the thrill she gets from singing, afraid of her own femininity and attraction towards the opposite sex. Society tells her that one day she must marry – either to have a family of her own, or to marry Christ and live out her days in the local convent. There are no other options. It is only through her loving relationship with her older sister Geraldine, described as ‘simple’ by others, that she can truly be herself.

As she grows up Cecelia discovers a secret surrounding the circumstances of her birth, becoming suspicious of her parents. Her relationship with her family deteriorates and she is drawn into a life of prayer, fasting and penance, determined to sacrifice everything she has. It is almost as if she is rebelling in the only way she can, unaware of her own motives, desperately searching for something.

As I delved further and further into Cecelia’s mind, I couldn’t quite marry the penitent child in the book with the image of the carefree girl on the cover. I felt (and hoped) that perhaps it was all a façade, nothing but an elaborate game, which would eventually end when others gave her the recognition and support she needed. Cecelia’s family seem to ignore her religious obsession, as if they hope it will go away, until one day when she demands an answer to the questions surrounding her birth.

Part Two of the novel shows us a grown up Cecelia, now living in Venice, free to choose her own destiny. She attempts at long last to confront her childhood fears, and is given the opportunity to help a young girl who, like her, is talented but poor, illiterate and naïve.

Doherty’s writing is poetic, lyrical and full of imagery. Cecelia is a believable character, uncertain at times of who she is or what she really thinks:

“And so natural was my sense of guilt that I knew I had committed a great sin by saying all that to her… It was wrong for me to say all that to her, in that way, in such haughtiness. But I was right. And yet I was wrong to allow myself to think even in my head that I was right.”

Requiem is not like anything I’ve read before. It is an incredible illustration of how a person’s childhood can affect their decisions in later life, and it is also entirely believable. You can tell that, whilst the book is not autobiographical, it is influenced by Doherty’s own personal experience. It is both sensitive and honest in its depiction of family love and hardship – a beautiful, heart-wrenching coming-of-age novel, and one of those books that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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