The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

Reading is magical. It can take you into a world, a life, a moment that you would never otherwise experience. The Crows of Beara transports you so fully into a place – a village on the southwest coast of Ireland, in a landscape scoured by wind and made jagged by stone – that you can feel the rain dripping from the leaves.

Annie Crowe, the novel’s main character, feels it too. The wild beauty of the area calls to her, even as she prepares to do a job that could threaten the Beara peninsula’s ecology and doom its most endangered residents, a type of crow whose natural habitat can be found there and almost nowhere else.

Annie is an outsider, an American from Seattle whose marriage and career in public relations have been all but destroyed by her alcoholism. Newly sober, and desperate to seize this last chance for professional success, she has agreed to sell the residents of Beara on the idea of letting a corporation build a copper mine in the rugged but environmentally delicate area.

Despite her Irish-sounding last name, Annie is of Polish descent. Yet once in Ireland she finds herself pulled toward local lore and history that she is just beginning to understand. Most mysteriously, she hears “a whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind.” And she is drawn to a local man who works as a hiking guide but is at heart an artist who, like her, is fighting to remain sober. Annie eventually learns that Daniel spent five years in prison after a drunk driving accident for which he has never been able to forgive himself – and that he, too, hears the Gaelic whispers in the wind.

For me, the best parts of the novel were the sensuous writing and the well-drawn characters, particularly the women, who play pivotal roles in Annie’s fate. (In fact, fate itself makes a few cameo appearances.) I particularly appreciated that as the characters wrestle with personal demons, love and loss, they also reckon with pressing conflicts of conscience and commerce.

Yes, the copper mine Annie advocates for will almost certainly destroy the gorgeous environment and perhaps drive the local crows to extinction. But on the other hand, the Beara peninsula has no jobs beyond the poorly paid tourism industry, and as a result, all the young people move away and never return. How to preserve a beloved place without destroying it? The paradox threatens to pull apart the close-knit village, along with Annie’s already-fragile sense of integrity.

The Crows of Beara spins a tale of a woman finding a home, and then struggling to make herself worthy of it. Let yourself sink into this magical novel.

Julie Christine Johnson

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