Monday 20 November 2017

Review: The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Atlantic Books, £13.99

Claire Coughlan

Christine Dwyer Hickey's previous novel, Last Train from Liguria (a bestseller, which was nominated for the Prix Europeen de Litterature) was set in Italy, a country where the Dublin-born author resides for three months of every year.

However, in her new work -- The Cold Eye of Heaven -- Dwyer Hickey returns to her native city in a story spanning 75 years, the length and breadth of one man's life. This time frame has, in fact, taken up several lifetimes for a city that has ricocheted between bust and boom and back to bust again quicker than you can say "f**k the begrudgers".

It sounds like a simple enough story: an elderly man looking back on his life, but its simplicity belies the complexity of the execution and the sheer scope Dwyer Hickey uses to create the character of Farley, an Everyman, a Leopold Bloom criss-crossing his city, whom it's impossible not to like.

When the book opens, he's lying on his bathroom floor, hovering between life and death; the past and the present. Although the story is told in the third person, we are transported to a ringside seat inside Farley's head, where the tone is intimate and unselfconscious and dialogue is peppered with spot-on Dublinese (people often end their sentences with "but" and "in anyway") and humour as dark as a pint of plain.

Each chapter goes further back along Farley's timeline by 10 years -- it opens in 2010, then back to 2000 until it ends when he is five years old. In the hands of someone less skilled, this structure could easily have fallen flat, but Dwyer Hickey artfully peels away the layers of someone's life until she touches on the core of what makes them tick.

The time frame is cleverly pulled off, with just enough detail to set the context but this is never prescriptive. For example, the chapter set in 2000 is selectively peppered with talk of the bus strike and the Catherine Nevin murder trial; the 1990 chapter is football-obsessed with Ireland's participation in the World Cup; while a fleeting reference is made to the hunger strikers in the 1980 chapter. The city itself is a living, breathing character, which Dwyer Hickey affectionately maps out for us.

While all the drama and upheaval is going on around him, Farley has his own private battles to fight -- the unfolding of history is an aside to his own personal concerns and struggles. He is a man of his times, upwardly mobile and ambitious, but then, he could just as easily be a man of any time.

Dwyer Hickey strikes a real emotional chord with her storytelling; it is an indictment of her characterisation of Farley and the empathy she invokes with her depiction that all I found myself wishing was for the best overall outcome for him. The reader laments his betrayals and losses, right alongside him, despite his flaws and mistakes along the way. There is no facile happy ever after, however -- we know from the start that Farley's life is a story which must come to a natural end, more is the pity.

If I have any criticism of this book, it is that I wish it had been longer -- I simply didn't want it to reach its conclusion. Farley and the supporting characters in The Cold Eye of Heaven have moved into my head and I just don't have the heart to evict them.

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