Sisters doing it for themselves in Cathy Kelly novel

Haute couture, heartache and addiction all combine in Belfast-born author Cathy Kelly's latest novel. She chats to Jenny Lee about Between Sisters and gives her views on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe

Irish novelist Cathy Kelly whose new book Between Sisters was published this month

THE highs and lows of the dysfunctional family and the friendships we choose are explored in Cathy Kelly's latest novel, Between Sisters. Born in Belfast, though brought up in Dublin, Kelly worked as a news reporter for 13 years with the Sunday World, before "following her heart" and becoming a romantic fiction writer.

Sixteen best sellers later, the 49-year-old always successfully manages to reflect upon modern life and share an uplifting message with her loyal readership. Between Sisters is bursting with strong female protagonists. "I suppose I love creating characters and writing other people's stories. Enthusiasm, that's what it is," she laughs.

Notably we meet devoted wife and mother Cassie, and her sister Coco who runs a vintage dress shop. Cassie has spent her married life doing everything right – making sure her children have the perfect life, being a devoted wife and a dutiful daughter-in-law. Although it has left her so exhausted that ‘wine o'clock' comes a little earlier each afternoon. Coco runs a vintage dress shop and has shied away from commitment.

The sisters have an incredibly strong bond, after their alcoholic mother abandoned them when they were young children. "The family is such a wonderful thing but not everyone is lucky to have a functional family," say Kelly, who started thinking about Cassie and Coco while writing her last novel, It Started with Paris.

"It was about two sisters, Susie and Leila, who had grown apart through circumstances, and when writing it I thought wouldn't it be great to write a book about sisters who were very close," Kelly says.

Her own bond with her younger sister Lucy made writing Between Sisters an easier task. "As a novelist you often write about things that don't happen to you all the time. If everything I had written about had happened to me I would be in a pickle jar. This book was much easier because I'm very close to both my brother and sister."

Addiction, marriage breakdown, fear of rejection, old love, rekindled love and illness are all explored in Between Sisters, as is the mother-in-law from hell, which Kelly says she thankfully can't relate to.

"No, but it's very common problem. In Italy it's a national problem. That whole area of the Italian momma whose son can do no wrong puts the protective Irish mammy to shame."

As a former journalist and agony aunt, Kelly reads a lot of newspapers and magazines to keep her informed of the world around her and to incorporate contemporary issues into her novels. In the novel Coco's best friend Jo has a life-threatening stroke. As well as being a plot twist, Kelly highlights the fact that a growing number of young people are having strokes, gives a stark warning of the brevity of life and explores the idea that you can't choose your family but you can choose your friends.

"I needed Coco's life to be changed. She had decided she was never going to have children because she feared being like her mother. Then when her friend has the stroke she is suddenly left looking after her daughter and loves it."

The women she writes about are also the women she writes for and Between Sisters introduces a wide age-range of women, including grandmother Pearl, who raised the girls following their father's early death. Readers also meet Pearl's secret lover.

"It was really nice to be able to write about someone who is older and has a sex life. You never read about that in books. Once you reach a certain age, it tends to be support stockings rather than romance. And why should it be like that? Women can be sexual, sensual beings at any age in their lives. In a way I'm combating ageism.

"I love being able to talk to all women. It's wonderful to get emails and comments from teenagers and older people. It's saying to me, you are doing what you hoped to do," Kelly says.

And does she have a message she would like people to take away form her novel? "You can't fix the past but it's never too late to go back and try to make amends. It's terribly sad that some people would die before they make up because life is too short."

Mum-of-two Kelly has witnessed this through her work as an ambassador for Unicef Ireland where she does her best to raise funds and awareness for children coping with conflict. Over the past 10 years she has visited Mozambique, Rwanda and, most recently, the Zaatari refugee camp, on the Jordan/Syrian border. She visited last December, when there was three-feet-deep snow, and the stark reality and scale of the refugee crisis was clear to be seen.

"It's almost like a city it's so big. At the time it had about 84,000 people in it; half of those were children, living in tents and huts. I met a woman with a three-week-old baby and her husband who was living in a tent with no heating or running weather. All they had was a couple of blankets. You are sitting there thinking dear Lord let this baby survive.

"The reason we have so many refugees now coming to Europe is that they are terrified the world will forget about them. People living in the camps realise nothing is being done with Syria. This war has been going on for four-and-a-half years and the world food programme is now only 50 per cent funded."

Is there a solution? "Somehow, and I don't know how. If they can get rid of the ISIS and their reign of terror then the people of Syria will have somewhere to go to. Primarily money needs to go into the refugee crisis, the camps and an enormous amount of political will has to go into solving what seems unsolvable."

And should the UK and the Republic follow Germany's example and accept more refugees? "Of course we should take people, but they also need a life and to be treated with respect and dignity. Many people coming out of Syria are highly educated and the problem with so many coming that don't speak our language is they can easily become some kind of underclass."

:: Between Sisters by Cathy Kelly is published by Orion and available now.


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