Thursday 22 August 2019

Books: Feckless father and stressed mother in a saga of chaos

Memoir: Hopskotch, Hilary Fannin, Doubleday Ireland, tpbk, 240 pages, €12.99

Gloriously uncensored: Fannin's memoir is searingly honest
Gloriously uncensored: Fannin's memoir is searingly honest

Hilary Fannin made her mark with plays and journalism that are not just witty, but shrewd and penetrating. The dramatic flourishes that made plays like Doldrum Bay and Fannin's adaptation of Racine's Phaedra theatrical successes also enliven Hopscotch, this gloriously uncensored memoir. It covers her childhood from junior infants in 1966 through to Confirmation - and beyond.

Feckless fathers and stressed, unhappy mothers unequal to mothering children and husbands are nothing new in Irish literature. Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Someone? springs immediately to mind. O'Faolain's father, the Evening Press social columnist Terry O'Sullivan, was urbane, worldly and neglectful of his family; Fannin's father, Bob, a talented cartoonist familiar to Evening Herald readers, was cut from the same sailcloth.

Bob was more at home in Howth Yacht Club than in his suburban house with its brick skirt and pebbledash cardigan. His life revolved around lining up pints in the Club or in plush hotels, and evading the debt collector's ever-threatening sword of Damocles. His ruddy cheque book was rarely to be found when final demands cluttered the kitchen table.

Hilary's mother once nurtured a promising stage career. That was before three babies arrived in rapid succession, followed later by Hilary, the afterthought. She was the only one father noticed. He and Hilary were pals.

In Hopscotch, mother's beautiful voice singing Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' regularly wafts from the bath, recalling life's illusions. There are so many things mother would have done, but clouds got in the way. She tried to revive her career but clouds blocked that sun. She performed in hospitals and at Butlin's holiday camp, but the money was lousy and father's comments derisory. She couldn't cut it as an unglamorous Avon lady selling beauty products door to door. It would take decades before she found her niche as a much-loved drama teacher. Predictably, there were epic domestic battles: breakfasts of fried eggs and rashers of bacon catapulted into the air crash-landed on the unwary Fannin offspring.

Hilary's genteel, rule-bound convent school decreed that everything is part of God's plan, and that the Virgin Mary winces when you write letters backwards. There was much talk of sorrowful mysteries, plagues of locusts, and mourning and weeping in this Vale of Tears. Protestants had black marks on their souls.

Hilary and her knowing little friend Norah imagine what it would be like to be called to God's supper. The guests would be fishermen, cured cripples, scribes and Pharisees. They would dine on loaves, fish-fingers and Mi-Wadi, and the Virgin would bark: "For God's sake, will you all sit down! Didn't I tell you five minutes ago your supper was on the table!"

By the time Confirmation looms, Hilary is sceptical. The Virgin could have kept a better eye on Hilary's siblings and ensured that sleek businessmen bought her father's cartoons. Nonetheless, Hilary fears that if she stops believing, the Virgin will be bruised black and blue.

Fannin achieves that most difficult of literary feats - she evokes a childlike voice that credibly conveys more than it understands. About a marriage that has three people in it. About a man who wanted to be someone else. About the toll his dreaming took.

Fannin structures her sorry saga of chaos so deftly the reader hardly notices how disciplined it is. Hopscotch is searingly honest, hilariously funny and utterly memorable.

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