John Montague on Christine Dwyer Hickey: ‘a rich and varied oeuvre’

One of Ireland’s finest poets reviews the career of our Book Club author, from Tatty to The Lives of Women: 'her work sustains a voice, and evokes a place, with exceptional control'

Christine Dwyer Hickey and her brother Owen Dwyer at the launch of  The Dancer in 2005. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Christine Dwyer Hickey and her brother Owen Dwyer at the launch of The Dancer in 2005. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

In 2004, Christine Dwyer Hickey published Tatty, a remarkable book for its pathos, its dry humour, and the controlled beauty of its style, but perhaps most of all for the fact that while it is partly memoir, it always sustains the authority of fiction. This is achieved mainly through the pitch-perfect narrative voice. With a few exceptions, Tatty alternates between the third person and the second person singular, which gives this story of a Dublin child a particular immediacy. When her parents are disputing, the fight itself becomes a sinister creature: “It wakes you up with its screeches and screams...” And in the glacial aftermath of a row: “You keep on thinking there’s a funny smell in the house... it’s like a smell without a smell.”

Through this charming and guileless voice, Tatty’s experiences of abuse and neglect are handled with the lightest of light touches, evoking Katherine Mansfield’s delicate forays into the world of children. In a particularly heartbreaking scene – which at the same time avoids sentimentality – Tatty is taken back to boarding school one day too early. Alone and terrified as night falls, with the darkness “doing tumbles in front of her up the long corridors,” she desperately rings her mother, who (incredibly) refuses to rescue her. Finally, Tatty manages to contact her father, who drives her home. “Now I know you don’t want me,” she says bitterly to her unrepentant mother. But the matter is not settled there, for some time later, back at school, while the other children are raising their hands and calling, “SISTER! SISTER!” the name that “bursts out of [Tatty’s] mouth instead’ is “MAMMY! MAMMY!” In this way, Tatty’s anguish and courage, the appalling nature of her plight, the callousness of her mother and the carelessness of her loving but clumsy father, are rendered with a bare and vivid urgency.

Last Train from Liguria, published in 2009, is a more ambitious but no less delicate novel. In addition to historical accuracy, the scrupulous development of characters and a powerful narrative drive, this book triumphs through its evocation of place. Sometimes it seems that every Anglophone writer from the 18th century onwards has attempted to describe Italy, but Dwyer Hickey, depicting Liguria in the 1930s, conjures up the colours and textures of a whole world with such startling lyricism, it is almost as if we had never quite experienced Italy in fiction before.

But we are seeing it now as Europe tilts towards war. Bella, our Irish heroine, is caring for an emotionally fragile, half-Jewish child in the town of Bordighera. In one beautifully cinematic scene, Bella walks up to the Old Town where she learns of the new race laws that will imperil the boy in her charge. While she pauses on a bench, the multitudinous church bells ring: “Churches she may have seen on Sunday outings, churches she may never see as long as she lives – she listens to them all now. Down in the centre of Bordighera the peals are more rounded as if they are being weighed on the palm of a hand.”

The scene goes on, full of everyday life: “A boy in uniform sits on the church step eating a half moon of melon as if he is using it to wash his face.” But everywhere, within the ordinary, there are intimations of menace: “the sound of her footsteps over the empty piazza like slow sardonic applause” and even at midday the “light of dusk” inside “the long, vaulted carruggio of via Bastoni”.

Cold Eye of Heaven, which appeared in 2011, also offers us a rich sense of place, though in this book the place is Dublin, starting in 2010 when Farley, the main character, is dying, and unfurling back through time until 1940. Each decade in the life of this man and his city is described with scrupulous accuracy, pathos and humour. And while it takes place solidly in a particular city during a particular period – or periods – in history, this is also a mystical novel, exploring what it really means to be an incarnate soul, for while Farley is an ordinary man, his life shimmers with the extraordinary things that shape a destiny. As the epigraph states, in a line from Philip Larkin, “An only life can take so long to climb”.

After Dwyer Hickey’s Dublin Trilogy and then the trio of novels mentioned above, she published a book of short stories and a play. And now we have The Lives of Women, which, like her other work, sustains a voice, and evokes a place, with exceptional control. Except that in this case, the place is eerily deracinated, a nameless suburb in which a number of girls and women are at once materially pampered and denied essential spiritual nourishment. This is a powerful novel, in which, as always, Dwyer Hickey uses the simile to tremendous effect, producing sentences that are lyrical but never self-consciously so, in the service of a story that reverberates in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.

When I was growing up, there were very few Irish women novelists, although the 19th century had produced Maria Edgeworth. And then there were the writers of romance, like Annie MP Smithson, who was read to me alongside a mug of Ovaltine and an arrowroot biscuit. We were dimly aware of Elizabeth Bowen, but she was a distant, upper-class figure who loved Ireland without writing much about it, except in The Death of the Heart, and she was working from the safety of England or else placid Bowenscourt. When a convent girl from Limerick, Kate O’Brien, showed her nose, she was applauded for her first novel on the Irish Catholic upper-middle class, Without my Cloak, though when she dared to criticise them, she was cruelly censored, as was that other talented O’Brien, Edna. These days, an Irishwoman can conduct her literary career without fear or favour, as Dwyer Hickey’s rich and varied oeuvre shows.

John Montague is one of Ireland’s leading poets. His new Collected Poems were published by Gallery Press in 2012

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