Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: Children: A Greyhound Of A Girl by Roddy Doyle

Scholastic, £10.99

Published 27/08/2011 | 05:00

Roddy Doyle may be best known as an adult novelist but his children's books have sold over half-a-million copies worldwide and have won him many plaudits, including an Irish Book Award in 2008.

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That was for Wilderness, his last book for readers of age 10-plus. His latest book for this age group, A Greyhound of a Girl, is another award-winner in the making.

It's also being pitched by the publisher as a crossover novel, a book that can be enjoyed by children and adults. Parents of young readers may well find themselves dipping into this funny, sad story and getting hooked.

The beautifully crafted and original book features four generations of the same family, three alive and one dead: 12-year-old Mary O'Hara; her mother, Scarlett; her joke-cracking grandmother Emer who is in hospital and near the end of her life; and Tansey (Anastasia), the ghost of Emer's mother who turns up to help her dying daughter say goodbye to the ones she loves and to help Mary say goodbye to her beloved granny.

As the book opens, Mary, a strong, feisty and often "cheeky" girl is bereft. Her best friend, Alva, has just moved away and no one understands how alone she feels. While walking past Alva's empty house, Mary spots a woman dressed in old-fashioned clothes and stops to talk to her.

Doyle's simple description of the woman paints a vivid picture for the reader. "She was wearing a dress that looked like it came from an old film. . . she looked like a woman who milked cows and threw hay with a pitchfork." This woman, "shimmering as if she was stepping behind a sheet of clear plastic", is Tansey, one of the most 'real' and robust ghosts I've encountered in any book. With Tansey, Doyle rips up the ghost handbook and rewrites it.

The story moves from the present (narrated through Mary's eyes), to the past, telling each adult woman's story in turn, weaving in and out of time -- describing Tansey's life on the farm in her mid-20s, and how she died of flu when Emer was a toddler; and adding vivid, telling scenes from Emer and Scarlett's childhoods.

In the hands of a lesser writer this time travel could prove confusing, but in Doyle's strong, confident grasp it works perfectly and adds to the depth and substance that make this novel a standout read.

All four women finally meet in the last quarter of the book when Mary and her mother sneak Emer out of the hospital to meet Tansey's ghost. After Emer's initial shock (and a very touching and funny reconciliation scene with her ghost mum), she wants to drive to Wexford to see the farm where she was raised (by her father after Tansey's early death), and the four women take a road trip through the night.

I won't spoil the ending, but there is a deep sense of peace at the close of the book, a gentle quietness, a sense that four lives have changed from the experience, and two have come full circle.

Doyle's dialogue is masterful -- pithy, clever, direct -- and is one of the great joys of reading this book.

While I adored all four characters, I fell in love with Tansey, a character I will never forget. Doyle uses the theme of mothers living on through their daughters to great effect -- the lynchpin of a previous Doyle picture book, Her Mother's Face, in fact -- "When you want to see your mother, look at your own face in the mirror." This book is also a meditation on life and death and the nature of ageing -- how the child we once were is still in all of us.

I would recommend this masterful family drama with a ghostly twist to any reader aged 10 or over. And to parents. It may be short, but it packs a lasting punch.

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