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"Sisters of Belfast" | Reviewed by Maria Brady Smith

In “Sisters of Belfast,” by Melanie Maure, twin sisters, Aelish and Isabel McGuire, are orphaned when their home in Belfast is bombed by Germany in 1941. They both end up at the Sisters of Bethlehem Orphanage--Aelish going there immediately, and Isabel taking up residence after a long hospitalization. While the girls may look identical, their experiences at the orphanage are very different.  Aelish is devout and obedient while Isabel consistently rebels.  


Eventually, Isabel disappears and Aelish is left on her own to wonder what happened to her sister. With Sister Mike’s love and guidance, Aelish eventually becomes a nun in the same order and plans to live out her life serving God at the orphanage.  


Years go by, and one day Aelish receives a letter from Isabel’s husband, Declan, who knew them from childhood. Declan explains that he and Isabel live in Newfoundland and that Isabel, after giving birth to twins, has become very sick with tuberculosis. He asks Aelish, now Sister Clare, to come to them immediately.


Aelish makes the voyage and the sisters are reunited. Isabel slowly recovers with Aelish’s care. However, Isabel harbors many traumatic memories that Aelish has never known or understood.  As they get reacquainted and as Isabel recovers, the sisters bond again and eventually the secrets come to light.


The portrayal of the Bethlehem nuns’ care for the orphans and a different order’s care for unwed mothers is central to the story and is well done.  Aelish experienced both the loving care of Sister Mike and the abuse of the Mother Superior, Sister Edel.  Isabel experiences the abuse that was notorious in homes for unwed mothers at that time. In her acknowledgements, the author notes that 50,000 mothers and babies suffered the atrocities at these mother and baby homes during this era.


“The Sisters of Belfast” is a novel about how the bond of love between the sisters saves them both. It is a story of trauma and resilience and of the healing power of the hope that comes with righting wrongs.  



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