Review: Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin

In a haunting new YA love story, Sue Divin speaks of the reality of young people finding their way in post-Good Friday agreement Northern Ireland, where the conflicts of the Troubles may have been laid aside…but the past has long arms.


author: Sue Divin

Macmillan Childrens Books (1 April 2021)

ISBN: 9781529041675

Summer 2016, Derry. Aidan and Iona may live in the same city, but in many ways, they come from places that are worlds apart. Now eighteen, they were both born on the same day; the day of the Northern Ireland peace deal.

Aidan is Catholic, Irish and from a strong Republican family. His ex-political prisoner father has vanished, taking with him his drunken abusive behaviour and, for a while, there was peace in Aidans’ home. But it was short-lived when his mother got sick and died of cancer a couple of years back. Now Aidan has his hopes pinned on his exam results earning him a ticket out of Derry…to anywhere. Aidan wants his own life, away from the shadows and expectations that follow him.

Iona is Protestant and British; with a father and brother in the police service. She has her eyes on Queens’ University in Belfast, has a strong faith and a firm belief that boys without one track minds don’t exist. And she’s determined to carve her own path.

An incident at a post-exam party sends a drunk and drugged-up Aidan out into the streets. Wandering alone across the Peace Bridge and not realising where he is, Aidan is set upon, becoming the victim of a vicious sectarian attack. Iona witnesses the attack, picking up Aidans’ phone and filming the whole thing. If it weren’t for her, his attackers would have finished him for sure. Iona gets in touch with Aidan to return his phone and when the two meet up, alone and on neutral territory, the differences between them and their lives are insurmountable. Both have secrets that must be kept; both have family that will stand in their way. But…there’s something there. Something compelling that pulls them closer together and opens a possibility that neither could have imagined. If only the past would stay in the past…

Deceptively easy to read, this is a book that deals with many issues, some common in the general world and some quite specific to life for young people today in Northern Ireland. Grief, prejudice, violence, family issues and echoes of an unsettled past all act as background to a love story that is haunting and permeated with realism. The portraits of each character are carefully developed in a way that gives quick, yet deep insight into what drives them and the reader sees the world through their eyes with immediate effect. Each person in the book bubbles up around Aidan and Ionas’ story, adding more background, more revelation and more intrigue. Family ties and old wounds want to entrench themselves in their lives. Aidan and Iona are caught in a turmoil that they long to escape for their own reasons, but it’s not that easy. Overcoming these obstacles is as difficult as overcoming the struggles of Northern Irelands’ past. The empathy with which this is developed in the book allows this to bleed out into a wider-world understanding. We can relate.

There are a few issues that are not fully explored and may be glanced over, but to delve deeper would change the story entirely…and probably requires a book of their own for a satisfying exploration. This is Romeo and Juliet; timeless, yet timely. The echoes are inescapable. Star-crossed lovers, family discord, social impropriety, misconstrued influences…yes, we know this story well. And it still moves us, outrages us and gives us pause for thought. The ending leaves you hanging a bit, as you wonder if the past can really be left behind. A striking, emotional, raw and sometimes brutal tale; well-written and very real. It is clear, the author knows her subject well and has the talent to weave it into a beautiful, poignant, thought-provoking book. (YA; 14 yrs.+)

Sue Divin is a Derry based writer and peace worker, originally from Armagh in the North of Ireland. With a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies and a career in Community Relations, her writing often touches on diversity and reconciliation. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry, have been published in a range of literary journals. Guard Your Heart is her first novel.

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