Painting Through the Dark is the story of a young woman, Ashling O'Leary, who is determined to leave Ireland and her demons behind and make a life for herself as an artist in San Francisco. In writing this engaging novel, Irish-born author Gemma Whelan drew on her own experiences from when she arrived in the U.S. several decades ago at the age of 21, with no contacts and little money.
Whelan describes San Francisco in such detail the city is like a character in the story. The bay, the hills, the cable cars, the architecture, and the neighborhoods all create a living background to Ashling’s coming-of-age story. Set in the 1980s, the city represents the freedom and artistic outlook Ashling seeks.
Although her living situation is difficult and exploitive, Ashling is tough. Rebelling against the secrecy and silence of her upbringing in Ireland, Ashling uses art to express herself emotionally through color and texture. And Whelan uses Ashling’s story to explore themes of resilience, independence, and creativity.
The book is a page-turner, filled with vividly visual scenes and dialog that make the story speed along. I read it straight through to find out what happened to Ashling!
Fleeing from the emotional shackles of her family in Ireland and the convent where she was training to be a nun, the feisty 21-year-old Ashling O’Leary arrives in San Francisco in 1982 with a backpack, a judo outfit, her artist’s portfolio, a three-month visa, and a determination to find a way to speak up about the abuse of girls and women in Catholic Ireland. As she becomes embroiled in a whirlwind of love, art, and deception, Ashling learns that her success as an artist and a human being depends on dealing with the ghosts of her past and speaking out on behalf of others.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gemma Whelan is an award-winning director, screenwriter, and educator. As an Irish immigrant to the U.S., her perspective crosses the boundaries between cultures, and as an artist, she gives expression to stories that have been suppressed. Gemma was the founding Artistic Director of Wilde Irish Productions in the San Francisco Bay Area and of Corrib Theatre in Portland, Oregon. She has been directing and teaching at universities and conservatories in the U.S, Ireland, and Asia for over 35 years. Her novels are Fiona: Stolen Child and Painting Through the Dark. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Read my interview of Gemma here.