Thursday 22 March 2018

Moore Fitzgerald jockeys into position among Ireland's most interesting children's writers

Young adult: A Very Good Chance, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Orion, pbk, 240 pages, €8.99

Sparkling prose: Moore Fitzgerald’s books have been nominated for many awards
Sparkling prose: Moore Fitzgerald’s books have been nominated for many awards
'A Very Good Chance', by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald.

Sarah Webb

There is a strong tradition of horses in Irish children's literature - from The Turfcutter's Donkey by Patricia Lynch and The Island of Horses by Eilís Dillon, to, more recently, Annan Water by Kate Thompson. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald's A Very Good Chance is a welcome addition to the canon.

Moore Fitzgerald is a professor at the University of Limerick and her previous children's books, Back to Blackbrick and The Apple Tart of Hope, have been shortlisted for many awards, including the Waterstones Children's Book Prize.

Set in contemporary Dublin, A Very Good Chance features 14-year-old Minty, who finds distraction and solace from her warring parents on the banks of the river at the end of Nettlebog Lane, which "feels like being in the middle of a secret", "risky and wrong". She discovers a caravan and stable hidden in the trees, home to her classmate Ned Buckley, his gran, and his horses, Dagger and Phoebe. It is clear to an adult reader that Ned is a Traveller but the word is not used in the book, allowing young readers make up their own mind about his lifestyle and who he is.

To Minty, Ned is an enigma, a boy who lights midnight bonfires, who swings over the river on a tyre, "bellowing loud, unfathomable things". He's also a boy who everyone says is "no good". But Minty sees past their preconceptions and assumptions and sets out to befriend him, an action which ultimately changes her life. The only other person who truly sees Ned is their wonderfully colourful Italian history teacher, Serena Serralunga.

Ned's great passion is horse racing and he teaches Minty to ride bare back. Together they enter the Ballyross Race, a notorious local horse race. On a deeper level, he also teaches her about a different way of living, a different way of navigating the world. His words are full of gentle wisdom. "Ned taught me a lot of things," Minty tells the reader. "And one of the things… is that you get to decide how to look at the world. You get to decide your version."

Moore Fitzgerald's prose sparkles and I often found myself stopping to savour her sentences. Her descriptions of nature are particularly lyrical: "A breeze often shivered through the bushes as if there were nervous, sneaky animals hiding there."

Her descriptions of Minty's estranged parents are also striking: "Both of them walking in and very quietly out of different rooms in our house as if we were in the middle of a bad play."

The wonder and magic of Minty and Ned's burgeoning relationship is beautifully handled. The book inhabits the space between middle grade (age 9+) and YA (young adult) fiction and its short length will encourage even the more reluctant reader to pick it up. It will also encourage them to think about what makes a hero and what makes a true friend.

There is a problem with the book's timeline, which is unclear. The story is set between autumn and the following summer (nine months or so) and during this time, Minty's parents separate and her dad remarries. Any young Irish person with parents, or aunts or uncles, who separate and eventually divorce will know that it's not as simple in real life (under Irish law, a couple must live apart for four years before they can divorce). I also found the 'fairy tale' ending unnecessary; the book is strong enough to withstand a less fanciful conclusion.

However, overlooking these quibbles, A Very Good Chance is a brave and thoughtful with cracking characters. It deserves a wide readership and confirms Moore Fitzgerald's place as one of Ireland's most interesting new children's writers.

Sarah Webb is the new Writer in Residence for Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown

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