Entertainment Books

Monday 16 July 2018

A still, small voice calling from alcoholic wreckage

Katie Wink

Tatty Christine Dwyer Hickey New Island, ?10.99 CHRISTINE Dwyer Hickey's historical trilogy The Dancer, The Gambler and The Gatemaker established her as a major presence in contemporary Irish fiction. Her fourth novel, Tatty, beautiful and heartbreaking, confirms that her skills are perfected, and her exceptional talent is far from exhausted.

Tatty's Dublin family is imploding under the pressures of alcohol and depression. Her internal monologue gives us an ever-widening window on her life from 1964 to 1974, with one chapter for each year.

Hickey renders Tatty'smaturing voice with remarkable subtlety: as she develops from a sensitive and curious three-year-old to a wise and wounded 13-year-old, we feel 10 years' worth of growth without actually noticing it.

Reading Tatty's story is like watching your own child grow; nothing but the occasional point of reference will make you realise how profoundly she has changed in the time you've known her.

Only once in a great while does Hickey's writing feel self-conscious, and in the context of such a stunning achievement, this is easily forgiven.

Tatty describes her world and her place in it with a sweet and simple dignity. She understands from an early age that all families are different - some call the living room a 'parlour' or even a 'lounge', like a pub - and at first her own family's behaviours seem to fit into the spectrum of normality.

Among these ways are the fights that eight-year-old Tatty describes as tearing through her house like runaway trains. They have a certain smell to them, a certain shape, and she can feel when one is coming.

After the first big fight, silence descends on the household until a second big fight erupts and clears the air. Then Dad takes Mam out on the town, buying her clothes and showing her off at the races, and the family is something of a family again. But inevitably, "Dad breaks his fat promise and lets the fight come back in the house."

Despite the hardness of her world, tender family portraits emerge throughout Tatty's stories. The most poignant focus on the eldest child, Deirdre, who is developmentally challenged.

Tatty explains that God chose her family to take care of Deirdre "because he loves us so much and knows he can trust us to look after her - it took him ages to make up his mind because God is very fussy about who gets his special children".

Deirdre inspires intense love and commitment from her parents and siblings, and through her, Hickey shows us the enormous potential for good that exist in a family gone bad.

For example, Dad, though often removed from the children's struggles, singlehandedly teaches Deirdre to walk and to turn her screeches into speech.

And Mam, though cracking up under the strain of her growing family, pulls herself together to fight for a mainstream education for her daughter. And in losing this battle, Mam falls deeper into hopelessness.

Fourth child Brian, a loner and troublemaker, is in tears as the bus comes to take his big sister to the special school. Convinced that she doesn't want to go, he pleads with Mam on Deirdre's behalf.

As Tatty talks about Brian, and all of her five siblings, Hickey reminds us that even the most difficult child of alcoholic parents is an innocent victim.

But Tatty's innocence reaches the deepest levels - only gradually does she begin to understand that some of the things which make her family different from others are bad. Big sister Jeannie has to tell her "how to be ashamed" of the baby Power bottles filled with milk in their lunch bags. At boarding school, Tatty finally comes to understand shame on her own terms.

The school gives Tatty a chance to form her first friendships, but such closeness to other lives makes her own seem, at last, wrong. As troubling as it is to see Tatty accept her abusive childhood as normal, there is littlecomfort in watching her loss of innocence.

Throughout her narration, Tatty refers to herself in the second person - as if she is holding herself at arm's length - or in the third person, when she seems tostep away from herself completely.

But as much as this allows Tatty to remove herself from her situation, it also allows her to create a much-needed friend. The "Tatty" she talks about becomes one more person in her small world, one whom she can understand completely and who will not betray her.

Such is Hickey's power that, as a reader, you'll soon feel that you have become that very necessary person for Tatty - someone who knows everything about her, and longs to protect her.

And when the book ends so suddenly that you feel you are abandoning her, the effect is shattering. Tatty devastates in a way that only the most unsentimental novels can.

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