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The mundane is mysterious in beguiling debut novel

Fiction: Tennis Lessons

Susannah Dickey

Doubleday, 256 pages, hardback €12.99; e-book £7.99


Artful: Derry poet-turned-novelist Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

Artful: Derry poet-turned-novelist Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey

Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey

Artful: Derry poet-turned-novelist Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

'You wish your class could read books about something other than war and the children of war; you want to read about normal people trying to do normal things. You want to know in detail what the characters look like, what they are wearing in each scene, what they think about when they look at themselves in the mirror, what happens when they try to walk quickly when the ground is frozen and slippery, what they say when they get an unexpected phone call… Normal life seems more difficult, and you want instructions on how to move through the world."

If Susannah Dickey's debut novel teaches us anything, it is that the interior of the seemingly mundane can be the most mysterious world of all. It means that we do indeed want to read about "normal people" and helping us to do this are a new generation of young female writers on this island who are rendering that normality with dexterity and aching sensitivity. What's more, a cursory glance at the fiction charts each week suggests that not only are we at last reading women, we seem to be mostly reading women.

This hasn't gone unnoticed by the industry. The short promotional bio accompanying this release leads with Dickey's year of birth (1992). The author, her publishers want you to consider, is one of these "young guns" storming the battlements.

But while Tennis Lessons might be the latest novel by an alarmingly talented twentysomething Irish woman to chart the thorny early years of womanhood, the Sally Rooney comparisons end there. What the Derry poet-turned-novelist achieves here is an altogether more artful and structurally adventurous outing that would have comfortably found a publisher without the current Rooney slipstream.

Had Richard Linklater's Boyhood been about an Ulster girl and presented in prose format, it might have resembled Tennis Lessons. Told in the second person with a level of laser-precision intimacy that you can't look away from, it traces the development of a nameless ingenue from three to 28. And like Linklater's film, we find ourselves investing heavily in this character because we remain perched on her shoulder as the years come and go. This inevitably elicits our deep concern and draws us back to our own shaky beginnings.

The second-person voice calls to mind Nuala Ní Chonchúir's own debut You. That book showed us that it is a pronoun that can be used to great effect for the entire course of a novel because it creates a permeable barrier between narrator and protagonist, fundamentally intimate and yet at a slight remove as if the character is being observed.

In short logs headed with the age and month in question, our character quickly comes into view as a gorgeously self-effacing creation. Her parents' marriage is falling asunder and her mother is depressed following a bereavement, but this is leaked to us in the happy-go-lucky innocence of a small child. As she gets older, school looms into view, and suddenly the echo chamber of her small family unit is cast open and she comes to regard herself against her classmates. After being a bright and charming pupil, at some point in her teenage years, "you became someone teachers didn't think of as special or clever".  

All the messy inclinations and inconsistencies of our inner landscapes as we try to figure exactly who the hell we are, all that second guessing and fudged lines - this aspect of Tennis Lessons is just beautifully executed. Even the ugly parts, the thoughts she has about others or herself en route to adulthood, are messy fibrous elements that are endearing in their own way. There are dark passages, as there are in the lives of too many young women, when wolves are encountered and things are taken from her.

You'd be reluctant to pin a theme on to something as naturalistic as this beguiling and rather brilliant book. If you had to, however, possible recurring motifs might be that we are all plural and we are all works in progress. While that can be frustrating, especially in our least secure formative years, it can later on prove to be an opportunity for change, and change we can. 

A novel about being normal that is anything but.

Indo Review