Tuesday 20 February 2018

Books: Evocative stories set in Dublin's fair city

Christine Dwyer Hickey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Christine Dwyer Hickey. Photo: Gerry Mooney

John Boland

Fiction: The House on Parkgate Street by Christine Dwyer Hickey (New Island, €14.99, pbk)

Christine Dwyer Hickey is a Dubliner and these are distinctively Dublin stories, in the same way that the stories of James Joyce, Maeve Brennan and James Plunkett would lose their essential character – indeed, meaning – if set anywhere else.

Indeed, Joyce made his intention explicit when, writing to the publisher William Heinemann (to whom he had sent the manuscript of Dubliners), he said that he was attempting "to represent certain aspects of the life of one of the European capitals". And writing at much the same time to his brother Stanislaus, he noted: "When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the 'second' city of the British empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice, it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world."

Not that he exalted the city of his birth. Writing to his dithering if eventual publisher, Grant Richards, he said he wanted "to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis".

Nor was he being any more complimentary when he disclaimed blame for "the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal" in the stories. Indeed, he told Richards he'd be retarding "the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass".

Some of them, of course, didn't like what they saw in that looking-glass, though it remains for Dubliners like myself the quintessential book about the city in which I was born and grew up – though almost rivalled by Maeve Brennan's marvellous stories about Ranelagh and, in more recent years, by some of the stories that John McGahern set in Dublin: Parachutes and Bank Holiday, in particular, have a real feeling for the hidden life of the city.

And now we have Christine Dwyer Hickey's vignettes of Dublin life. She has, of course, already written memorably of Ireland's capital, most recently – and perhaps most notably – in her 2011 novel, The Cold Eye of Heaven, which won the Kerry Group Novel of the Year award and was longlisted for the Impac prize. It was a book as arresting for its evocation of a changing Dublin down through the decades as for its haunting portrait of a man who grows more and more alone as he fails to change with it.

Now, though, we have the author's first short-story collection, with its multiple characters vying for our attention, not all of them as persuasively drawn as Farley, though it's perhaps significant that the least successful story, The Yellow Handbag, features an Indian cab driver who doesn't convince as a truly believable character, as if he's beyond the author's range of knowledge, experience or empathy.

Elsewhere, the weakest of the stories here fail either by overstatement (as in the clunky last sentence of La Straniera) or by its opposite – the circumstances of the troubled schoolgirl who's at the centre of Windows of Eyes are too vaguely suggested for the reader to engage with whatever plight she's enduring.

Still, even here the author's skill at conjuring up place and mood is such that I found myself back on the Rathmines Road and Castlewood Avenue of cold winter evenings, the parked cars on Mountpleasant Avenue "sleek with rain and streetlight", while in the local Londis of this area of down-at-heel flats and drab bedsits "people were buying small: small sliced pans, small cartons of milk. You could get twin sausages wrapped in cellophane".

And of the 12 stories here, at least half are absorbing and a couple are outstanding. I liked very much Saint Stephenses Day, which is seen from a young boy's perspective and concerns a family bus journey at Christmastime to better-off relatives in Killester (the tensions and bickerings of family life loom large in these stories). There's beady-eyed social comedy here, but it's only recalled because of an accident that befell the youngest child and that haunts his brother "for all the days and all the years that followed".

Even finer is the title story, with schoolgirl Grainne, daughter of a sourly separated mother and a doting but absent father, making her weekly pilgrimage to the house on Parkgate Street where her aunt and the aunt's senile mother-in-law live. Along the way she meets another lost soul in the person of a defiant middle-aged woman, and from this the author weaves a beautifully delicate study of loneliness and yearning.

And throughout the book there's the constant presence of the city itself, so vividly realised as to seem complicit in the disillusionments and destinies of its questioning and often querulous denizens. So vivid, indeed, that you can almost smell the streets, side roads, back lanes, pub doorways and faded houses.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Irish Independent

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