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Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

‘Sixteen-year-old twins Madeline and Catlin move to a new life in Ballyfrann, a strange isolated Irish town, a place where the earth is littered with small corpses and unspoken truths. A place where, for generations, teenage girls have gone missing in the surrounding mountains. As distance grows between the twins – as Catlin falls in love, and Madeline begins to understand her own nascent witchcraft – Madeline discovers that Ballyfrann is a place full of predators. And when Catlin falls into the gravest danger of all, Madeline must ask herself who she really is, and who she wants to be – or rather, who she might have to become to save her sister.’

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a hauntingly lyrical novel full of dark, visceral magic and the pains of growing up. On the surface, it has many elements of a contemporary novel, yet the threads of the narrative bring this together with otherworldly features and powers of a fantasy world without ever entirely leaving ‘our’ world behind, bringing what feels like an ancient and mythological history into the present day. When Madeline and Caitlin arrive in Ballyfrann, they are, at first, removed from the area’s history and its people, yet both are soon drawn into events and associations that they cannot resist, each under the thrall of their own particular magic.

One of the things I found most interesting about Madeline and Catlin is their own, separate, dedications to their individual choice of religion. Catlin is said to have an altar full of statues of the Virgin Mary, which is deemed acceptable by their mother and stepfather, whereas Madeline’s instinctive and anxious ‘habit’ of carrying salt and other, often natural, bits and pieces with her for protection is frowned upon to the extent that their mother takes deliberate steps to stop her and goes around removing salt from where Madeline has placed it, such as under her sister’s bed. Is it because Catlin’s choice of religion is more familiar, particularly for the location, that she is allowed her collection of votives and icons that ostensibly serve the same purpose as Madeline’s salt? I think that this particular element of the narrative raises a lot of good questions about what religion is and what it means to each person, and why people, often driven by fear, feel the need to object to what they don’t immediately understand.

The magic that Madeline slowly begins to embrace and further understand is both beautiful and horrifying on an instinctive level, particularly because it is so grounded in the physical and natural world and not formed of fantastical and intangible power. The power that she is encouraged to embrace is not a simple and malleable ‘gift’, but a responsibility and understanding that comes with a price that must be paid. All too often in YA literature, magical powers come with no cost and are at such a level that they turn the character who wields them into an unstoppable force. This is not the case with Madeline, whose entering into a world that she must risk sacrificing her dreams (or the dreams she believes she has) for is understood to be one that will grant her strength and the ability to assist others, but will not turn her into a being of unrivalled power. Her power lies more in knowledge and an understanding of that which others might not see or comprehend, a subtlety there that doesn’t completely remove her from the realm of what it is to be human.

I loved the idea of the families in Ballyfrann having their own ties to different forms of magic and affinities going back generations, with none of them so obvious on the surface as to indentify them as anything other than human to outsiders who aren’t familiar to the population. I particularly loved Oona and her affinity for water (to be honest, I just loved Oona in general and could probably write a whole separate review just about her) and the rumours that hinted at what powers and abilities other characters might have.

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a stunning read and one that I just couldn’t put down. Thank you, Hot Key Books, for gifting me a copy! Perfectly Preventable Deaths is out on May 30th!