📖 🇮🇪 #16: A feminist whodunit from Ireland

Louise O'Neill explores an unsolved murder investigation

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.


After the Silence is a contemporary crime novel by Irish author Louise O’Neill. Set in Inisrún, a fictional island off the coast of Cork, the novel follows Keelin Kinsella and her husband Henry after Nessa Crawley, a popular local teenager, was murdered during a party at their house. Though it is written in English, After the Silence is peppered with Irish words and phrases, a technique which O’Neill uses to establish the book’s setting in a Gaeltacht island—an environment in which Irish is the primary spoken language.

The novel is set ten years after the fateful party, when two Australian filmmakers arrive in Inisrún to make a true crime documentary about the unsolved murder. Locals have always assumed that either Keelin or Henry must be responsible—and it doesn’t help that Henry, an English settler in what’s effectively a closed community, is a status-obsessed bully. However, it soon becomes clear that there are a handful of possible suspects.

It was impossible to keep a secret on Inisrún. We had learned that as children, arriving home from a day running free across the island’s skin, and our mothers would be waiting for us, recounting a list of our wrongdoings, as if they has been there to see them first-hand. It was a form of magic, we thought; the Women of Rún must be witches. We didn’t yet understand this was simply the way of the island. Words skipping from mouth to ear, like pebbles skimming the water’s flesh, leaving ripples behind. We traded stories like we were bartering goods, for information was vital in a pace such as this. We could not live so close to one another if we did not know each other’s secrets. The knowing kept us safe.

Though After the Silence starts off as a whodunit, it’s not long before the mystery surrounding Nessa Crawley’s murder is overshadowed by themes of emotional trauma, coercive control, and psychological abuse. When the truth is ultimately revealed, it is by no means a surprise; I correctly identified the murderer about a quarter of the way through the book.

However, as a story about domestic abuse, After the Silence is smart and well-researched. O’Neill paints a realistic picture of how, having both fled a violent marriage and worked with domestic abuse victims, Keelin remains unable to recognise patterns of coercive control in Henry’s behaviour. Steering well clear of victim blaming, O’Neill carefully explores how Henry manages to seize control over every element of his wife’s life, from her eating habits and exercise regime to her social media activity and friendships.

Don't you think it's interesting that we always ask, "Why do these women stay?" We never think to ask, "Why are these men violent?" or "Why won't these men stop terrorising their partners?"

The book’s narrative switches between the lead up to the party and the present day. A lot of the book’s exposition takes the form of interview transcripts which, though efficient, I couldn’t help but find a little lazy. I also found myself wishing for slightly more character-work from O’Neill: Henry, for example, is a fairly two-dimensional baddie.

Nonetheless, at 437 pages After the Silence is a quick read that’ll certainly have you thinking about the many facets of abuse and control and O’Neill’s thoughtful focus on abuse is a welcome departure from your run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

After the Silence by Louise O’Neill (riverrrun, 2020)

More books by Irish authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. Books I’ve read and loved are in bold:

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

  • Milkman by Anna Burns

  • This Happy by Niamh Campbell

  • The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

  • Actress by Anne Enright

  • Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery

  • Big Girl Small Town by Michelle Gallen

  • A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghriofa

  • The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

  • A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

  • Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

  • Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

  • Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Lynsey Reed from Literature Ireland and Ailbhe Malone for this issue’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!