Roddy Doyle is a great writer.
He wrote The Commitments which is a fabulous book and one of my favourite films of all time!
He wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha which is a fantastic evocation of a ten year old boy’s childhood.
Roddy Doyle does voices extremely well. He creates the voices of children extraordinarily vividly.
So I was excited to see him on the Carnegie Shortlist. I was brimful of excitement and anticipation.
Alas, I have come away distinctly nonplussed. This is not a bad book – not at all – perversely I’d have preferred to have hated it – it just didn’t grab me. Or I didn’t get it, perhaps. It was sweet, it was pleasant, it was… okay. I came away from it thinking m’eh.
Now the book cover didn’t inspire: that insipid yellow; the static, limp-looking girl; the rather unconvincing greyhound. But, as we are told, as I teach, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover so I ploughed on!
The tale revolves around Mary, a twelve year old girl. We are told repeatedly that she is cheeky and clever. Beyond her adding the phrase “I’m not being cheeky!” to half of her dialogue, I didn’t feel her to be witty. Compared to Shorty in Nick Lake’s In Darkness who never tells us he is intelligent but whose voice clearly is, Mary’s didn’t.
Mary is dealing with the fact that her grandmother Emer is poorly and has been hospitalised. Mary and her mother Scarlett go to see Emer every day. One day, Mary meets a strange old woman named Tansy who looks old but isn’t and who turns out to be the ghost of her dead great-grandmother, Emer’s mother, who died when Emer was just three.
Tansy, Emer, Scarlett, Mary.
There is (deliberately and consciously) an absence of men in this story.
Now, normally, the gender of the main characters doesn’t terribly matter to me. But there are men here who have a story but who are given no chance to tell it: Jim, Tansy’s farmer husband who is left a widower with Emer and a baby to bring up; Gerry, Scarlett’s Dubliner father and Emer’s husband; Paddy, Mary’s father; and even Dominic and Kevin her teenage brothers who preferred to be called Dommo and Killer and skulk around the house.
Did I as a male reader feel excluded from the narrative in the same way as these characters were excluded? I think I did, actually, and I don’t usually react like that. The sublime A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – the 2012 Carnegie winner – showed that male characters can do emotion just as well as female ones in a similar context as the supernatural helps a child come to terms with a family member’s dying. But Ness’ book is raw and painful; this one is… sweet.
And a tad sentimental.
Tansy has appeared to “help” her daughter in her final days. Apparently, her concern for Emer had kept her “lingering” rather than moving on. And the form that this ghostly help takes is a nighttime road trip from Dublin back to the farm where Tansy died and Emer grew up. Ok. I get that.
And then Tansy steals ice creams for them.
Then they go back.
No, I’m sorry, I don’t get it. Perhaps I am lacking in emotion, lacking in empathy, lacking in x-chromosomes but I don’t get it.
And little, silly, practical things in the book niggled and distracted me which I’d have let slide normally. Tansy goes through a locked door to get the ice creams but comes out with them through the chimney because the ice creams are too solid… But was not the money she took with her to pay for them solid? The doctor agrees for them to take Emer out to meet someone… But no one raised the alarm when they didn’t return at all?
I wanted to like this book, I did; I expected to like it.
But I didn’t.