Thursday 26 April 2018

Review: Winter Flowers by Carol Coffey

Poolbeg, €15.99

Margaret Carragher

It's been a while since I finished a book in a single sitting but Winter Flowers is no ordinary book.

And Carol Coffey is no ordinary author. With a background in special needs education, Coffey has spent much of her working life with the emotionally damaged, and is possessed of an extraordinary ability to inhabit the psyches of the complex and contradictory characters that leap from the pages of her books.

Set in contemporary Dublin, Coffey's third novel explores the profound, and often self-perpetuating nature of childhood neglect.

As children of a largely absent father and a hopelessly inadequate mother, Iris and Hazel Fay's young lives are blighted from the outset. Following their mother's early, alcohol-induced death, the sisters spend much of their formative years being shunted between uncaring relatives and foster homes. However, despite her upbringing, Iris excels at school and trains as a nurse in London, where she meets and marries a young Dublin-born doctor, Mark. But haunted by her own dysfunctional childhood the prospect of motherhood terrifies Iris; and following the birth of her son Kevin, she abandons her family in London and returns to Dublin, where she finds work as a seamstress, and struggles to bury her past.

Back home, her younger sister is faring no better. The mother of two young boys whose feckless father is no longer around, Hazel has to get by on a single-parent's allowance, much of which she squanders on drink for herself and her useless boyfriend Pete.

With Iris happy to babysit, Hazel's home becomes something of a doss house for Pete and his unsavoury pals. And while Iris abhors her sister's selfishness in putting her own needs before those of her children, she realises only too well that, with her own child growing up motherless in London, she herself is little better.

Matters come to a head when, following an ugly scene with Pete -- who unknown to Hazel has been using her home as a repository for his illegal drugs -- Hazel's traumatised kids sneak off through the dark, inner-city Dublin streets in a bid to find their father. Having unwittingly ingested one of Pete's ecstasy tablets earlier, Jack collapses and is rushed to hospital, where the truth of Pete's nefarious doings emerges. The gardai and social services are duly summoned, and in a tableau reminiscent of her own childhood, Hazel's children are taken into care.

Then Iris falls seriously ill and Hazel finds herself in the role of principal carer, while simultaneously battling the authorities for custody of her kids.

So far, so dismal, so soul-destroying, so bloody awful.

But with Coffey, redemption is never far away. And while she might occasionally over-egg the misery mix (Iris's two-bar electric heater and brown wool cardigan is more Fifties than Noughties, and in an era of cheap chain-store chic, her unravelling of old Aran jumpers to recycle just doesn't wash), Coffey is unfailingly astute in her understanding of the human condition. Her characters may be deuced, contradictory, sometimes downright impossible, but they are never less than compelling; and there is hope for even the worst of them. It all makes for an engaging and thoroughly heart-warming read.

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