The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English was a novel that I had always planned to read this year. I had read the brief of this book online many times, a box filled with identity bracelets from a mother and baby home kept safe for fifty years by a former nurse. I was intrigued by the plot but very aware that it was likely some of the events in this story would ring true with many people across the country. As a woman who spent most of her childhood growing up in the 21st century, I first learned about mother and baby homes through history books and the media. These were piercing and terrifying years in Irish history and the story of The Paper Bracelet acknowledges the brutality, comradery and hidden acts of kindness that shape the stories of mother and baby homes across the country.
At the beginning of The Paper Bracelet we are introduced to Patricia, an expectant single mother unwillingly on her way to Carrigbrack, a mother and baby home. The first chapter gives a sense of the chilling circumstances that many women found themselves facing during that time in Irish history. The Paper Bracelet follows Patricia’s story to illustrate a microcosm of the poisonous circumstances about why expectant mothers were sent to institutions. We are then introduced to Katie, a former nurse of Carrigbrack who worked there during the 1970s. While memories of Carrigbrack bring back raw and haunting truths, for fifty years Katie has kept a box filled with the paper identity bracelets of children that were born in Carrigbrack while she was employed there. The information in this box could answer many people’s questions about their genesis in life and aided by her niece Beth, Katie posts a message about the identity bracelets on an internet forum with the hope of helping people to find answers. When the messages started rolling in, as a reader I was taken on a whirlwind of different stories of people who reached out to the ‘Carrigbrack Nurse’, each tale more saddening than the last. The idea of undertaking a journey really stood out to me throughout this entire read, and there were many journeys happening at the one time. While there were the journeys of each character, some joyful other one’s failures, these journeys ran in parallel with the journey of the reader themselves. Rachael English has succeeded in reaching into our not so distant past and has told a story that will resonate with many people across Ireland and beyond.
As the novel progressed each character’s strand of the story wove together into the plaited tale of Carrigbrack that Katie and Beth pieced together. While many of the characters shared a connection with Carrigbrack, their journeys to pursue their past led them from their own personal situations to untold territory of looking for their birth mothers. As I read this heart wrenching tale, I was very aware of the historical significance of the stories that were captured at the core of this story. University Express spoke to author Rachael English to ask her about her experience of writing The Paper Bracelet and broaching such an unsettling topic in our history. “I suppose everyone who writes a novel has to start by asking themselves, ‘Why this story?’ The legacy of forced adoption is a story I’ve encountered many times as a journalist, and I’ve always been struck by the way what happened in those years continues to reverberate around us. Also, we tend to think of mother-and-baby homes as places from history but Bessborough in Cork didn’t close until 1996. These stories are part of our time. I wanted to try and make the characters in the fictional home of Carrigbrack as relatable as possible, and to me they did start to feel real.”
The historical significance of this novel cannot be underestimated. Not only does The Paper Bracelet tell an enthralling story but this novel has given a voice to those who could not speak freely about their suffering while they were in mother and baby homes. The story has taken facts from real events in history and shaped them around beautifully created characters to tell a story that has a sharp sting of sadness, and yet that in many ways is filled with hope. The fact literature is bringing stories from such an important, tentative and traumatic time back into modern perception is a testament to the true value of this novel.