I’m kicking off Classic Irish novels week with a relatively modern classic, but a classic nonetheless – Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey.
Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey is this year’s selection for the annual Dublin: One City One Book during the month of April. A newly published edition, thanks to New Island Books, was launched last month with a new cover and the edition features a new introduction by writer Dermot Bolger.
Tatty is the story of one girl’s childhood as part of a Dublin family being slowly torn apart by alcoholism. Told in the second person, the reader first meets Tatty at the age of four and each of the corresponding 10 chapters covers a year of Tatty’s life as she tries to make sense of the world around her.
It is the 1960s and Tatty lives on an ordinary estate with parents and her siblings, who include Deirdre ‘the special child Holy God sent to us because he loves us so much’. Money is a worry. Space is a worry and Deirdre is a worry, but the biggest worry of all is the growing presence of alcohol and anger in their daily lives.
The child’s real name is Catherine, but her nickname, Tatty, comes from her constant need to tell the truth which not everyone approves of. One day, her father briefly loses her while he is drinking at the races. She tells her mother what happened and the name sticks.
Dad said, Yes you are so, you’re always telling, you even told when you were lost at the races.
No I did not, I said I wasn’t lost.
Big tell-tale-tattler. Tell-tale-tattler. You’re not my pal anymore. You’ll have to stay home with Mam in future
The strength of the book comes from Dwyer Hickey’s mastery of Tatty’s voice, allowing the reader to ascertain what is happening both through what the child is telling us and what the child cannot understand.
Maybe weeks, maybe months; they won’t speak again until after they’ve had the second big fight…Unless something really big happens first, like if somebody dies, your Granny maybe or Dad’s best friend. Or somebody has to go into hospital: Jeannie if her asthma gets too bad; Brian if he falls off the roof; Mam if she takes too many tablets by mistake.
Each year there are subtle shifts in perception as Tatty realises that her family is not quite like other families. As her voice develops, so too does her understanding of the pain her parents are visiting on each other and on their children. Her need to tell tales evolves into a need to tell the truth, the truth of the situation at home that is spiralling out of control.
Following a particularly harrowing incident with her mother, Tatty is sent to boarding school and it is here that she begins to flourish and understand that her life does not have to follow the same path as that of her parents, yet despite her happiness at school, the influence of home is still felt.
Laura would be here, Olivia too, probably full of their Christmas news, day by day, inch by inch. All of it true. Her own truth was starting to feel so heavy in her head, packed in tight like the stuff in her suitcase. She wished she could tell them, take everything out bit by bit. She wished she could tell them. But couldn’t think how.
Tatty could be read as a period piece of Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s but it transcends this setting to become a timeless and evocative portrait of a family in turmoil. It is also surprisingly funny, particularly in the early pages when Tatty unintentionally misreads situations.
It is also a very powerful depiction of life lived through dependency, but Dwyer Hickey never judges her characters. As seen through the eyes of Tatty, the situation is humanised. She is a disarming and dignified character and as such dignifies even those who do their worst to her through her unerring ability to love and to forgive.
This mosaic of childhood memories comes together to create a painful, emotional and ultimately believable portrait of life lived in the shadow of substance abuse and how that life can be navigated with humour and with hope.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 254
Number Remaining: 492
This week, I will be giving away a copy of this new edition of Tatty. To enter, simply comment below or post on Twitter and tell me your favourite book with a childhood narrator or about childhood (it doesn’t even have to be Irish!) and I will draw a winner on Sunday 15 March.
As always, I will post internationally.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!