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Tennis Lessons: clever, odd and intimate tale of Northern childhood

Susannah Dickey’s powerful writing brings a girl’s coming of age into sharp focus

Tennis Lessons
Tennis Lessons
Author: Susannah Dickey
ISBN-13: 978-0857526878
Publisher: Doubleday Ireland
Guideline Price: £12.99

In the hands of a skilled writer that lesser-spotted animal, the second-person voice, can be used to great effect in fiction.

Sara Baume gave a brutal poignancy to her marginalised narrator in Spill Simmer Falter Wither through a second-person narrative told to a one-eyed dog. In Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor's luminous and underrated novel about the actor Molly Allgood, the second person created an intimacy with a protagonist whose failing career and past loves had brought her low. And Claire Keegan's short story The Parting Gift is a masterclass in second person, providing the reader a devastating proximity to a young woman leaving a troubled childhood home.

Second person proves an appropriate choice for Susannah Dickey's engaging debut novel Tennis Lessons, a fiercely honest and unusual coming-of-age tale about a young woman growing up in Northern Ireland. From the opening sections that show the unnamed narrator as a sensitive, intuitive child in a house of parental friction, the book gets us extraordinarily close to the experience and gives a propulsive quality to the story.

Some readers may squirm at just how close the camera goes. As the narrator ages through school, college and into her 20s, the body is a central focus, from episodes that detail masturbating, painful sex and date rape. Disgust permeates the book: there are frequent descriptions of bodily fluids, rotting apples, wounds, which are all the more visceral in the second-person voice.

Consequences of actions

Dickey is a clever, unflinching writer who brings the reader on board quickly. She is particularly good at understanding intent and the unforeseen consequences of actions. Though the narrator of Tennis Lessons struggles academically (largely from lack of application), she is hugely emotionally aware: “You wonder sometimes if your parents feel cheated; if they feel like they traded in their happiness for a daughter who has yielded little.”

From Derry, Dickey is the author of two poetry pamphlets, I Had Some Very Slight Concerns (2017) and Genuine Human Values (2018). Her poetry has been published in Ambit, The White Review, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma among others. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the White Review short story prize, and in 2017 she was the winner of the inaugural Verve Poetry Festival competition.

With its quirky, outsider narrator and atmosphere of discontent, this first novel has echoes of Tessa Kavanagh’s Things We Have in Common, Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First and Michelle Gallen’s recent debut Big Girl, Small Town.

The sense of place that is so integral to Gallen’s novel is deliberately missing in Tennis Lessons. This can prove frustrating at times. The unnamed narrator, the unnamed hometown and country, the unspecified era means we grasp for clues along the way: a mention of an irregular war, an Irish backdrop with GCSE exams, college an hour’s flight away.

One wonders why we can’t just have the information, particularly as the book is narrated in short titled sections that give the month and age of the character. While initially helpful, these seem to grow more random over the course of the novel, drawing attention to the artifice of the story and away from the world of its narrator.

Brilliantly vivid

Dickey’s powerful writing is what draws us back again. The plot hinges on key moments and events in the narrator’s life – her mother’s depression, her parents’ disintegrating marriage, bullying at school, an affair, a sexual assault – and each of these is brilliantly vivid in its own right. The mother’s disappointment in marriage is passed down to the daughter: “‘Never marry a man just because he seems kind, OK? It might seem like kindness is the most important thing, but kindness has an expiry date, and then all you’re left with is stupid’ – a pause – ‘and inconsiderate.’”

Still, despite the turbulence of separation, Dickey manages to give a nuanced depiction of both parents, who try to do their best for their daughter, even if they often fall short.

Though naturalistic in style, the book is full of startling images: “The rest of the carpet is faded by sunlight to the colour of nausea.” In the middle of one excruciating scene of teenage bullying, the narrator looks at the beautiful face of her tormenter and thinks: “You could slide a pair of closed tweezers into the gap between her teeth and then let them spring open, each tooth pushed further to either side.”

Elsewhere, female friendship is the narrator’s saviour. The quirky conversations with her friend Rachael over the course of the novel bring levity and show how important such connections can be for those on the outside.

With her use of second person, Dickey gets us remarkably close to this outsider, whose questioning, insistent voice stays in the mind long after reading.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts

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