Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Ravelling by Estelle Birdy: an immersive, imaginative debut

Wrapped inside slagging and hectic lives of a group of Dublin teenagers are moments of tenderness and understanding

Author: Estelle Birdy
ISBN-13: 978-1843518648
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €16.95

Estelle Birdy’s debut Ravelling opens with a bang at a funeral of a homeless man in Dublin’s south inner city. Teenagers Deano, Hamza, Oisín, Benit and Karl mitch off school to attend. There are always guards at funerals, Deano, a weed-smoking hurling star who lives with his aunt, informs the lads. Pakistani Muslim atheist Hamza laughs, saying, “No, there’s not, you mad rat. Just the funerals you go to.”

Birdy has an excellent eye for detail, and the scene turns enjoyably comic when the deceased’s hysterical sister Candy (birth name Pocahontas) launches herself facedown on to the coffin, sending the metal trolley spinning.

The funeral takes place in autumn, and the novel tracks the seasons to the following summer and the far side of the Leaving Cert. Congolese nature lover Benit speaks for his friends when, struggling with his CAO form, he wonders, “How are you supposed to know what you want to do forever when you’re eighteen?”

The narration is shared between the five, exploring their public and private concerns. Empathetic Oisín sees his dead brother at the end of his bed, while Deano is terrified at the thought of bumping into his junkie mother on the street. Hamza, who has a sideline selling ADHD medication (his business is “Practically Fairtrade”), contrasts Dublin, a place of “big locks on flimsy doors” with his grandparents’ home in Pakistan: “Doors that stay open all day and then seal you in at night.”


“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round,” wrote David Lodge, illustrating the dichotomy between reality and fiction. Staying so faithful to the pace of lived experience dilutes Ravelling’s narrative flow in places: a brawl at a match comes soon after a skilfully written fight at the Young Scientist Exhibition, and the powerful impact of a knifing and its aftermath is reduced by a second stabbing.

I’d also have liked to read more about the characters’ attitudes to the misogynistic and male supremacist content social media bombards them with. Wrapped inside the slagging are moments of real tenderness and understanding, and Birdy’s observations (Oisín at a party sees four lads lying on a single bed, “like slices of bacon”) are visual and textured.

An immersive, imaginative debut.

Henrietta McKervey

Henrietta McKervey

Henrietta McKervey, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about culture