Roddy Doyle may be best known as an adult novelist but his children’s books have sold over half a million copies worldwide and have won him many plaudits, including an Irish Book Award in 2008 for 'Wilderness'. His latest book for readers of 10+, 'A Grey Hound of a Girl' is another award winner in the making.
This beautifully crafted and highly original book features four generations of the same family, three alive and one dead - twelve-year-old Mary O’Hara; her mother, Scarlett; Mary’s hospitalised granny, Emer; and finally Tansey (Anastasia), the ghost of Mary’s great-granny.
As the book opens, Mary, a strong, feisty and often ‘cheeky’ girl is bereft. Her best friend, Alva has just moved away and no-one understands how alone and cut off she feels. While walking past Alva’s empty house, Mary spots a woman dressed in old-fashioned clothing and stops to talk to her. As always Doyle’s simple yet telling description of the woman paints a vivid picture for the reader. ‘She was wearing a dress that looked like it came from an old film . . . she looked like a woman who milked cows and threw hay with a pitchfork.’ This woman, ‘shimmering as if she was stepping behind a sheet of clear plastic’ is the Tansey, one of the most ‘real’ and robust ghosts I’ve ever encountered in any book; with Tansey, Doyle rips up the ghost handbook and re-writes it.
The story moves from the present (narrated through Mary’s eyes), to the past, telling each adult woman’s story in turn, weaving in and out of time - describing Tansey’s life on the farm in her mid twenties, and how she died of flu when Emer was a toddler; and adding vivid, telling scenes from Emer and Scarlett’s childhoods. In the hands of a lesser writer this time travel could prove confusing, but in Doyle’s strong, confident hands it works perfectly and adds a depth and substance that makes this novel a stand out read.
All four women finally meet in the last quarter of the book when Mary and her mother, Scarlett sneak Emer out of the hospital to meet Tansey’s ghost. After Emer’s initial shock (and a very touching and funny reconciliation scene with her ghost mum), Emer wants to drive to Wexford to see the farm when she was raised (by her father after Tansey’s early death), and the four women take a road trip through the night. I won’t spoil the ending, but there is a deep sense of peace at the close of the book, a gentle quietness, of four lives that have all changed from the experience, and two that have come full circle.
Doyle’s dialogue is masterful – pithy, clever, direct and is one of the great joys of reading this book; and while I adored all four characters I fell in love with Tansey, a character I will never forget. Doyle uses the theme of mothers living on through their daughters to great effect – the lynchpin of a previous picture book ‘Her Mother’s Face’ in fact - ‘When you want to see your mother, look at your own face in the mirror’; and this book is also a meditation on life and death and the nature of ageing – how the child we once were is still in all of us. I would highly recommend this masterful family drama with a ghostly twist to any reader of ten plus. It may be short, but it packs a lasting punch.
This review first appeared in The Irish Independent