A fistful of fine family stories
Can sit comfortably on the short-story shelf next to James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’
Christine Dwyer Hickey: omission works a treat in her short stories. Photograph: Lorna Fitzsimons
The House on Parkgate Street
Christine Dwyer Hickey
Marcel Duchamp’s remark that “it’s not what you see that is art. Art is the gap” might be claimed for fiction, too, where knowing what to leave out can be as important as what to reveal, not least in a short story where economy matters far more than in a novel.
Such omission works a treat in the novelist Christine Dwyer Hickey’s superb first story collection, The House on Parkgate Street, leaving us to wonder why a teenage girl has fled home with her schoolbooks to sleep rough, or who the strange man is in a signed photograph that suddenly appears tucked into the corner of a mother’s bedroom mirror. Or exactly what tragedy befell an older sister and still haunts her younger brother, who returns years later from Mumbai for their father’s Dublin funeral.
At the same time Dwyer Hickey trusts her readers, leaving us to happily work out who’s a sister of whom, or precisely where a visiting cousin “raised on the Continent” hails from, much as we might pick up bits and bobs about a stranger we’re talking to at a party. As such, there’s little overt, never mind obvious, exposition in these tales – what information we require to follow a storyline is obliquely provided – though, once again, not everything we might wonder about (or indeed like to know) is revealed. Still, as with life itself, what’s left unsaid can often resound the loudest.
Such partial knowledge – the little we can truly know about so many things – is especially true of childhood. So it’s probably no surprise the degree to which childhood lies at the heart of this collection, as it did with Dwyer Hickey’s Orange prize-shortlisted novel, Tatty, as if she had taken to heart the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s admonition: “Don’t think Destiny’s more than what’s packed into childhood.”
Not surprising, either, are the persuasively observed family dynamics that underpin stories indelibly marked by love, loss and, in two at least, a poignant quotient of guilt. Family stories that come replete with parents, sisters and brothers both younger and older, or a brace of cruel cousins. Plus a bevy of aunts, such as the eponymous Esther of Esther’s House, whose family secret has all but unhinged her, or widowed Aunt Judy of the title story, whose incapacitated mother-in-law terrifies her niece Gráinne, “her mouth sucking on another cold chip and one furious staring eye staring out”.
Such precise, graphic prose is typical of Dwyer Hickey’s rich characterisation, enabling us to picture the mourning brother in the masterly Absence by the way he takes out his black tie, “holding it up for a moment like a dead eel between his fingers”. Or envisage one of two elderly sisters in Teatro La Fenice via “her bare bottom, like two pork chops hanging down”. Or envision the continental cousin in La Straniera, “wittering to herself . . . as if she were a human wireless that someone was trying to tune”.
The stories lay a claim of sorts to that swathe of Dublin roughly bounded west from Capel Street to Chapelizod village north of the Liffey, and Ballyfermot and Walkinstown to the south. So it only makes sense that there should be a wintery echo of Joyce’s The Dead at the close of the title story.
Whether it’s a conscious salute or a subliminal echo hardly matters, given the long shadow Joyce still casts on any Dublin story. That said, Dwyer Hickey’s accomplished collection can sit comfortably on the short-story shelf next to your man’s Dubliners, her fistful of stories as fine as you’ll come across this, or most any, year.
Anthony Glavin is a writer and editor.