Sunday 18 August 2019

Tragic author's final novel is her best

Fiction: The Gift of Friends

Emma Hannigan

Hachette €14.99

Emma Hannigan's legacy is this wonderfully joyous novel, her finest work
Emma Hannigan's legacy is this wonderfully joyous novel, her finest work
The Gift of Friends by Emma Hannigan

Anne Cunningham

Exactly one year after Emma Hannigan's death, her final - and finest - novel has arrived, written in the last throes of her many battles with breast cancer. And yet this multi-layered saga of friendship is as 'uplit' as you'll find, although of course the light is not visible unless there's darkness and Emma Hannigan could write dark. Two incidents of barbaric domestic violence are described in merciless detail with cold, clear-eyed, precision. Jealousy and familial begrudgery is another ugly thread that looms in the lives of several characters. Hannigan's wide-angle lens also focuses on the Magdalene laundries and on their unremitting savagery, all for the greater glory of God. Behind the high-gloss front doors on Kingfisher Road, one of Dublin's leafiest suburbs, the pain is palpable.

But while pain may be inevitable, it seems suffering is optional for her principal characters. While Kingfisher residents Pearl, Betsy, Maia and Nancy have more skeletons in their respective closets than a small army of Agatha Christie characters, they have attained the glorious happy ever after. Or so it would seem. But life for each one of them begins to unspool quite rapidly after the new owners of Number 10 move in. This young couple are hard to ignore. The guy is one of the Johnstons, a member of the wealthiest horse breeding family in County Meath. The girl, barely 20, is 'lowering the tone' of the neighbourhood, with her ancient and battered Toyota Yaris parked in the opulent driveway. The four friends simply have to find out what the story is, and as they do, they find themselves having to face some unpalatable truths in their own lives.

For all its sorrows, this big, fat, generous novel is in fact a story packed with joy. At the time of writing, Emma Hannigan had received the news that the cancer she had been fighting since 2005 had finally won. There was nothing more her medical team could throw at it and the clock was ticking. Lesser mortals might have retreated in defeat to spend their last days as serenely as they could. Hannigan's high-octane response was quite different. Her chart-topping bestseller, Letters to my Daughter, had just been published and she embarked on a publicity blitz, assisted by her many friends in the writing community, with the proceeds of the book going to the Irish Cancer Society. In the midst of this blitz, she also submitted her manuscript of The Gift of Friends, writing the following in her acknowledgements: "This book was only hatching. It hadn't the time to crack through the shell and poke its beak out into the big bad world! I'm being forced, due to a lack of time, to leave it in the capable hands of Ciara Doorley at Hachette Ireland and Sherise Hobbs at Headline."

She died less than a fortnight later.

In 2005 Emma Hannigan discovered that she had inherited the gene BRCA1 which carries an 85pc risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. She decided to minimise that risk with preventive surgery but cancer soon followed. It was during her first recuperation that she began to write. She asked her close friend, novelist Cathy Kelly, to look at her work and Kelly believed she should be published.

Her first novel, Designer Genes, based on her own experience with cancer, was published in 2010, and although she suffered repeated onslaughts of cancer in the years that followed, she published a further 12 novels, kept up a busy blog, became an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland and wrote her memoir, Talk to the Headscarf.

Her remissions over the years were shortlived, her treatments interminable, and she wrote, she said, to "stay sane". She became a supreme example of courage under fire and the remarkable sisterhood of Irish popular fiction novelists rallied round her. She planned her own funeral and wrote her own eulogy, which included the following: "Faced with very little time can I tell you what screams out at me? Love. Nothing else has much meaning any more."

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