Echoes of 'Strumpet City' in new page-turner sure to lead us down The Lane again
Since leaving home at 17 in search of adventure, Gemma Jackson herded sheep in Devon, was air hostess to the Shah of Iran, wrote speeches for an American TV evangelist and met Michael Jackson. She also has a sense of humour.
Her motto is: "I'll try anything once. If I don't like it, I won't do it again", adding that she has one child! Her interesting life is worthy of a book in itself. However, Jackson's compelling debut novel is set in Dublin's inner city, where she grew up listening to her parents' yarns about the rare auld times. These stories stuck with her during her travels and now form the basis of Through Streets Broad and Narrow, featuring her charismatic and feisty heroine Ivy Rose.
In the grinding poverty of an area known to the locals as "The Lane", Ivy can take care of herself. She's been doing it since she was nine years old when her mother left and Ivy became the sole provider for her Da and three older brothers until they left home. Pushing a pram around wealthier areas, she begs for cast-offs which she mends and sells in Dublin's markets.
On New Year's Day 1925, Ivy's life changes when her handsome but feckless Da dies having filched the rent money, leaving her penniless and alone.
While paying her respects at the morgue, a chance meeting with a wealthy young woman introduces Ivy to the possibility of another way of life.
Ivy's world is peopled with colourful street traders, dossers, pilferers, drunken men and strong women, each dealing with poverty in their own way. While cold and hunger are constant companions in The Lane, just a stone's throw and another world away in Mount Street lives Ann Marie, an independent young woman with modern views.
Frustrated by her cosseted, genteel existence, Ann Marie is determined to improve Ivy's lot.
Jem Ryan owns a livery near Ivy's tenement. He turns to Ivy after an accident in his carriage leaves a young girl homeless. With Ann Marie's money and contacts, Jem's loyalty and Ivy's can-do attitude, the three protagonists begin to triumph over adversity, relieving not just their own but their neighbours' suffering in this rags to not-quite-riches story.
There is a vibrant immediacy to this book from the outset. Well-drawn characters jump out of the pages and are so engaging that they leave you wanting to know more about them. Luckily, Jackson seems to have plans for more stories from The Lane.
An admirer of the works of Mary Jane Staples, Maureen Lee and Joan Jonker, which also feature working-class heroes, Jackson says: "I'm hoping to create a community that the reader wants to visit again and again. Through Ivy's eyes, we see Dublin and The Lane develop and change."
Publishers Poolbeg justifiably liken the novel to Strumpet City; it also bears a resemblance to Victoria Hislop's The Thread and even Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Whatever the comparisons, Through Streets Broad and Narrow stands out from the crowd, is hard to put down and seems guaranteed to add 'bestselling author' to Jackson's catalogue of occupations.