Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: Fiction: The Cold Eye Of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Atlantic Books, £12.99

This novel's central character, Dubliner Farley Grainger, has a stroke on the first page. His days are done, but he is not giving in.

On a viciously cold night in January 2010, a night that is bound to be his last, he recovers consciousness stretched on his bathroom floor. He is confused and paralysed, but reassures himself that he will be rescued. In the meantime, he struggles to make sense of the fragments of memory his brain tosses up.

There's the wake of his former boss, Frank Slowey, which Farley attended the previous evening, an occasion that highlighted the isolation of his old age. Award-winning Dublin author Christine Dwyer Hickey brilliantly captures his complex emotions as he struggles to have his suit dry-cleaned and one shoe resoled for a funeral he will not attend.

Old Farley is consumed with fear that he will "get done" by "taximen, junkies and youngfellas". Long experience has taught him to distrust humanity.

After his wife died of a cancer that had reduced her to a 'Belsen baby', he sank her life insurance into rescuing Frank Slowey's firm. In return, Frank made him his business partner. However, Frank's son welshed on their gentleman's agreement.

This was not the first occasion that his trust was betrayed and hope disappointed. Lingering over the book is the regret that his shadowy father never bothered to take his younger self fishing.

Dwyer Hickey reveals further details of Farley's life through his eyes in a series of episodes set a decade apart but presented in reverse order -- with the most recent first.

He was a popular enough workmate, a hard man who held his own with drinkers, and who could con wily defendants into accepting summonses. The lively coarseness of his idiom gathers momentum with the decades, and then diminishes -- though it never leaves entirely.

Farley was a man who had a way with the young wans, but who lovingly tended his ill wife and his demented mother -- and who conducted a longstanding affair with Slowey's wife.

As each chapter reveals more, we are obliged to revise and complicate our opinions of Farley. Nothing is straightforward. Unspoken tensions haunt every page. A teenage Farley intuitively recognised similarities between a hormonally charged young nun and a woman in a grey hat, ostracised at his father's funeral.

Appetites that have dark consequences drove both women.

However, the reader is left to make the link between Farley's dream of a drowned baby and his beloved Martina's death -- she who became his 'Belsen baby' in her final illness.

Is his dream just a frenzied alcoholic hallucination or the memory of some buried event too traumatic to confront? Or both?

Did his mother have a baby girl and if so, what happened to her, and why?

This is Dwyer Hickey's most achieved, taut and nuanced novel to date.

It returns to topics explored in her 2009 novel, Last Train from Liguria, which also grapples with the secrets of past generations. The Cold Eye is set in Dublin, as was her trilogy, The Dancer, The Gambler and The Gatemaker, and her first novel, the prize-winning Tatty.

However, this book lays less overt emphasis on the damage that cruelty wreaks on children, and more on their capacity to read adult actions and guilt.

The character of Farley is a triumph. He commands empathy and sympathy, but there are also disturbingly unpleasant foil characters such as a ratcatcher (plying his trade in Farley's home) and Wiggy (whom he encounters as a child at his grandfather's).

The novel's tone, as befits Farley's dying state, is elegiac and poignant, but unsentimental.

Dwyer Hickey, with her acute ear for Dublin repartee and her fast, easy dialogue, chronicles the progress of Dubliners through childhood, adolescence and maturity, and into old age.

This book, as much a story of Dublin as of Farley, does not immediately reveal its secrets.

As Farley struggles to understand them, so does the reader.

That is part of the novel's singular achievement.

Mary Shine Thompson

Dr Mary Shine Thompson is the former Dean of Humanities at St Patrick's College in Drumcondra

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