Saturday 15 December 2018

Accidental dad gets lost, then tries to find himself in London

Fiction: The Weekend Dad, Alison Walsh, Hachette, €13.99

The Weekend Dad by Alison Walsh
The Weekend Dad by Alison Walsh

Anne Cunningham

Having written two previous novels which could forgivably be labelled women's fiction, Alison Walsh has departed from that world - at least in this novel - and opted for a much broader spectrum. The Weekend Dad is written in the first person from the perspective of Emmet, the "Dad" of the title and this novel should appeal to fiction fans of both genders.

It's 1995 and Emmet is whiling his life away as a civil service clerk, stamping licences in the Department of Fisheries, when he discovers he's got a seven-year-old daughter in London.

The girl's mother, Amanda, a long-forgotten old flame, contacts Emmet, announcing that the daughter he never knew about would like to get to know him.

In a fit of panic and guilt and all sorts of conflicting emotions, Emmet leaves his job to go live with his brother in a grotty flat off Holloway Road.

Just 28 years old, he admits: "Fatherhood is alien to me and, even though I might say otherwise, I know in my heart that I would really like to keep it that way."

Amanda has done well for herself. She's now a successful lawyer, living with a wealthy property developer, Roland. Misty, the little daughter, is very fond of Roland. And so Emmet stumbles into the heart of this messy "blended" family with all the wisdom of a toddler. He is, quite literally, an innocent abroad.

He quickly discovers that Daisy, his childhood sweetheart, lives nearby. Emmet's betrayal of Daisy some 20 years before, still makes him flush with shame and he's determined to atone for his wrongdoing. But he can only accomplish this through pretence and skulduggery - along with some of his poetry - and this is when the fun begins.

Alison Walsh has a lot to say in this novel about fatherhood, and indeed about parenthood in general. While Emmet is grappling with being a "grown-up" for his daughter, he's aware that his only role model - his own father - is no model at all. Emotionally inarticulate and guilty of several affairs in the past, his father represents everything that Emmet does not want to be. Another thing he doesn't want to be is an unemployed poet, relying on his affable brother's charity. So he takes a job in a fusty, crumbling bookshop and adopts a tiny stray dog he finds in the street.

Walsh's descriptions of some of London's less salubrious neighbourhoods, prior to their wholesale gentrification, works wonderfully well here, and she's got some great characters working hard on the sidelines; Queenie, the nosy Cockney neighbour is a hoot, while Emmet's brother Tom, slogging away on the building sites, is particularly well-drawn. His Mammy is a little less convincing, especially as the plot develops and she decides to find her own destiny, but maybe every young Irishman abroad needs a long-suffering Irish Mammy.

Working full-time, writing poetry when he can, and minding his daughter and his dog - along with making amends for the mistakes of his childhood - all of this will surely make a man of Emmet. Won't it? There are distant echoes of Nick Hornby's About A Boy here. But the circumstances and characters are very different. And yet, Walsh seems to be making a case for parenthood being synonymous with adulthood. Maybe she's right.

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