Owl Song At Dawn – Bury Reading Group

Owl Song At Dawn by Emma Claire Sweeney


The wonderful people at Legend Press very kindly donated a set of  Emma Claire Sweeney’s Owl Song At Dawn to Bury Libraries Reading Groups. After already being read and discussed by our virtual reading group – you can find their comments here – the set has now continued its journey by being the chosen book for Bury Readers Group in January.

When considering if this is a good book to be used by a reading group I think that everyone who attended the discussion – 18 people – would say a resounding “yes!”. There were so many different aspects to the story, the subject matter and the characters that contributed to a very lively and engrossing meeting; this was the first time the I have ever know us to overrun by almost fifteen minutes!

Scroll down to follow as the members of the Bury group share their own individual responses to the book. Here are just a few to get you started:

Owl Song At Dawn is a quiet, sensitive book that will linger with its readers, unsentimental yet moving. Its 80 year-old protagonist is a flawed but kindly person, easy to like – and with her first person narrative, easy to identify with. The story of her disabled twin sister is slowly revealed over the course of the modern-day tale of her two young ‘adopted grandchildren’ who see Downs Syndrome as no impediment to their marriage.
I recently read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, a multi-million bestseller which touches on similar themes – the struggle to provide a quality family life for a disabled child around the middle of last century – and betrayal and misunderstanding. I found Owl Song At Dawn a more satisfying read, perhaps because it left more to the reader’s imagination. A phrase such as, ‘All’s well when Mum is here,’ says so much more than pages of description of the mother’s care.
Ultimately I puzzled as to why Maeve, the protagonist, took almost sixty years to re-evaluate what had happened in her youth – and what was the catalyst for her change of heart. But if we let too much logic into a story it can sometimes defuse its poignancy, so I choose instead to focus on the hopeful tone of the book, a pleasant change from so many stories of elderly people with dementia.


I found this book on the whole depressing but realistic. It described well the treatment of disability in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and how dreadful it was. I thought it was too ruminative and repetitive although the random speech of Edie, which she repeated over and over, was well portrayed. I found it interesting but it could have been shorter and snappier.


I did not anticipate that a story set in Morecambe about twins, one of whom had Down’s Syndrome, would be so compelling.

Owl Song at Dawn is set in the 1950s and today. The book reflected the feeling of people living in the 1950s towards people with learning disabilities  and some scenes describing how Edie behaved and was treated were quite disturbing but vivid and evocative of the times.

Maeve, the ‘ clever’ twin, made all the wrong choices during her life until she finally realised to grasp what joy she could while she still had time.

Even In the present day, there seemed to be obstacles put on the way of Len and Steph, both with learning disabilities, when they wanted to get married.

Anyone who enjoys books about life, relationships, joy and sorrow will find this story fascinating and incredibly thought provoking and deeply moving. A real page turner too!!!


The novel reads like reality; it is a sensitive depiction of Maeve (who is almost 80) and of the significant others in her life. The author takes the reader into Mave’s mind through her voicing of memories – many to her absent twin sister. The bond between Maeve and her severely disabled twin spans all 8 decades of Maeve’s life and the author has clearly drawn on personal insights from her own life with an autistic twin.

Until, at the end of the story, she is given a chance, the dreams of university educated spinster Maeve ( running her late parents Morecambe guest house where she hosts and employs people with learning difficulties) have never been fulfilled.

In addition to her twin, a couple with Down’s Syndrome who are staying in her guest house feature prominently in the novel; again questions of love, life and society values are explored.

A moving story delivering powerful messages.


I look forward to reading and responding to more comments and opinions.

Nic (Reader Development Team)



6 thoughts on “Owl Song At Dawn – Bury Reading Group

  1. I liked this book a lot. The main character, Maeve.whose story it is, is writing to her beloved late twin sister, Edie. Edie is the “you” she addresses throughout the book.

    Their story goes backwards in time while Maeve’s present situation unfolds in the current narrative.

    This writer deals with disablement in a clear and sympathetic way. The novel is very sensuous, touch, taste, colour and sound are described vividly. Edie’s lists of words, phrases, hymns, rhymes, poems and shouts – e.g. “The Night Mail” and “For Those in Peril of The Sea” are inserted through the story reminding us of how her mind works.

    I look forward to this author’s next work.



  2. Thank Rita. Here is some more feedback from the group:
    Here is my feedback for Owl Song at Dawn. I enjoyed the book it was easy to read though a little confusing at the start with all the time shifts. The story line was interesting and highlighted in a very human way the differences in the treatment and perceptions of disabilities within the two time frames. I would give the author another read. Cath


  3. One of Radcliffe’s Reading Groups have also had a chance to discuss this title. The following comments have been submitted so far:

    “The book was a bit depressing though I liked some of the characters within it. I did not like the way it kept jumping about in years, I felt it made it hard to keep track of where I was up to.”

    “Some lazy stereotyping e.g. Tough Northern woman; drinking Irishman; weak males; convenient deaths. I liked the story.”

    “At last a book that lives up to the blurb and the critiques on the front cover. I enjoyed it.”

    “A very good read – and unusual. Thought provoking and well written. I learned a lot from this book.”

    “Enjoyable and moving. It accurately reflects the changes in attitude to people with learning disabilities, and the changes that still need to happen. The characters are well drawn and consistent, revealed by the plot and the dialogue.”

    “Excellent way of creating ‘real’ people and their interactions. The young people with special needs are portrayed with sensitivity and understanding. Lovely, believable story here.”

    Thanks to everyone for contributing.


  4. I found this book interesting, but not very easy to read. The central character, Maeve,l seems embittered about social services and the NHS. Even Nazi Germany and eugenics are brought in.

    She leaves her sister, who has cerebral palsy, alone in the bath, her family seems to neglect both the sister and the mother by not getting medical help, and Maeve expects her fiancé, Frank, to live with her family and help to care for her sister after they are married.

    It is a disjointed read with continual flashbacks which make it hard to follow. There is a happy ending of sorts, which I didn’t find very convincing.

    However, it is a good book for reading groups as it is dense and multi-layered.



  5. These comments are from the Ramsbottom Friday Afternoon reading group – thank you for getting in touch with us.

    This novel gave a great insight into the joys and tribulations of people caring for severely disabled persons, and their dedication and sacrifice. It also portrayed these disabled persons in a fresh light, acknowledging their hopes and amibitions and desire to live as “normal” a life as possible. I felt a great sadness that all Maeve’s dreams came to nought, but what a life of dedication! A good read.
    Madeleine Hardman

    Enjoyed this book and would recommend.
    Like many modern books it does jump around from the past to the present. Eventually you do adjust to the characters and time frame.
    The storyline was new and different and it was good to have characters with learning difficulties included. It did leave me a little sad though that the main character had carried so much pain, blame and regret for nearly all her adult life.

    I loved the book. A touching story that had me in tears and laughter. Characters very real and life like. A good description of life over the last seven decades or so. The story centres on life in a hotel in Morecambe over that era and how attitudes have changed. It covers society’s attitude to people with learning disabilities.
    Daphne Holden

    I found this book rather difficult to settle into at the beginning because of the changing time scales. However with a bit of perseverance the narrative began to draw me in. There was a good sense of the setting in Morecambe and the seediness of Sea View Lodge. I began to love the characters from Maeve and her stubborn efforts to keep the place going and her patience with Len and Steph and their exuberant view of life and the varied guests. The book is of course dominated by Edie, Maeve’s twin sister. The repetition of her favourite litany of words and phrases throughout the book was at first annoying but eventually became a reinforcement of her character. close family relationships were fondly depicted and the parents’ battles with social services was truly shocking. there was also the close relationship between Len and his dying mother which was very poignant, I liked the suspense of waiting to find out about Maeve’s guilty secret.
    I enjoyed the books and would be happy to read another book by this author.
    Jenny Johnson


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