Requiem was my first novel for adults, set in rural Catholic Ireland in the 1950s. Cecilia is devastated when she uncovers a family secret connected to her birth. She leaves home to live in Venice and pursue a career as an opera singer. But her family ties are too strong, and she must make her amends.
Published by BillyWorks, 2018, ISBN 978-0954837396. Originally published by Michael Joseph 1991.
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It is quiet in the early fields. A bell begins to toll for Mass, and from all over the village dogs set up their barking. A priest in his long skirts stands on the steps of the church. People are coming, clutching their missals. The priest goes inside. He is old.
Latecomers shuffle in the porch. Men in their shirtsleeves stand leaning on the glass at the back of the church. Their shadows hunch about. The voices of the faithful rumble after the priest. A baby’s hand taps on the glass.
Outside the streets are empty. A rook on a post clucks to itself and squawks down, loud-beaked, to its fellows.
The story of Cecilia’s adolescence is exquisitely told in a style that is both economic and exuberant… There are moments of near-Joycean epiphany… the plot is tight and the narrative is startling.
Why I wrote ‘Requiem’
Requiem was the first of my two novels for adults, and I still think of it as being my best book! Writing it was a difficult and sometimes emotionally challenging journey through my own strictly Catholic adolescence and my early adulthood.
It is not autobiographical, yet I wrote it as a way of exploring personal memories of when and how I was educated. It began as a short story for radio, and I later developed it as a play for Radio 4. Later still, I worked on turning it into the novel, and it remains my personal favourite of all my writing. The central character, Cecilia, is not me, nor is her family my family, nor are any of the events in her story connected to my own life. It is pure fiction, but Cecilia’s schooling in Ireland reflects my own in England very deeply.
Requiem is essentially about the influences of religion, family and music on a child’s life, and how as a young woman she strives to break free of all these bonds and address the problem which has haunted her since childhood.
What happens in ‘Requiem’
It is at times poignant, funny, sad and disturbing. Cecilia, her Downs sister Geraldine and her brother live with their parents and uncle and aunt. The family ties are very strong, yet the brother leaves Ireland and a man known as the Bad Boy appears to be courting guileless Geraldine. Both the protective priest and charismatic Uncle Rory priest are possible threats to Cecilia as she tries to unravel the family secret. Cecilia flees to Venice, and falls in love with a married man from her childhood village. She abandons her operatic career to make peace with her past.
This is quite simply one of the best adult novels I’ve ever read…
poet James Carter, 2018
Speaking about ‘Requiem’
On 28 October 2014, I appeared at the Quaker Meeting House in Sheffield as part of the Off the Shelf festival, where I spoke to Trisha Cooper and read passages from Requiem. Carys Bray also appeared. A video of the event can be viewed on YouTube.
‘Requiem’ is an enchanting and lyrical portrait of childhood and growing up. Berlie Doherty is a real writer… lovely prose… more please.
Best known for her books for children and young adults, Berlie Doherty is one of the finest writers of today, an author who writes – as Barry Hines once advised her – ‘as though every word cost a bob’. Requiem was first published in the 1990s, to much acclaim, and it is wonderful that this hidden gem is now available again. Set in rural Ireland and later in Venice, ‘Requiem’ is the haunting story of a young woman’s search for self-fulfilment as she struggles against both the love of her close Irish family and the seductive discipline of her convent upbringing. Beautifully written, with an emotional intensity and perception that astonishes, this is a book that you will be passing on to friends.
A beautiful, heart-wrenching coming-of-age story; one of those novels that will stay with me for a long time. [Full review here]
Created to Read
If you enjoyed reading ‘Requiem’…
My other novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams (an updated, expanded, improved version of my novel The Vinegar Jar, originally published by Penguin) is now available to preorder as an ebook – published 31 March 2022.