Dwyer Hickey's historical trilogy The Dancer, The
Gambler and The Gatemaker established her as a major presence
in contemporary Irish fiction. Her fourth novel, Tatty,
beautiful and heartbreaking, confirms that her skills are
perfected, and her exceptional talent is far from exhausted.
Tatty's Dublin family is imploding under the pressures of
alcohol and depression. Herinternal monologue gives us an
ever-widening window on her life from 1964 to 1974, with
one chapter for each year.
renders Tatty'smaturing voice with remarkable subtlety:
as she develops from asensitive and curious three-year-old
to a wise and wounded 13-year-old, we feel 10years' worth
of growth without actually noticing it.
Reading Tatty's story is like watching your own child grow;
nothing but the occasional point of reference will make
you realise how profoundly she has changed in the time you've
Only once in a great while does Hickey's writing feel self-conscious,
and in the context ofsuch a stunning achievement, this is
Tatty describes her world and her place in it with a sweet
and simple dignity. Sheunderstands from an early age that
all families are different - some call the living room a
'parlour' or even a 'lounge', like a pub - and at first
her own family's behaviours seem to fit into the spectrum
Among these ways are the fights that eight-year-old Tatty
describes as tearing through her house like runaway trains.
They have a certain smell to them, a certain shape, andshe
can feel when one is coming.
After the first big fight, silence descends on the household
until a second big fight erupts and clears the air. Then
Dad takes Mam out on the town, buying her clothes and showingher
off at the races, and the family is something of a family
again. But inevitably, "Dad breaks his fat promise
and lets the fight come back in the house."
Despite the hardness of her world, tender family portraits
emerge throughout Tatty's stories. The most poignant focus
on the eldest child, Deirdre, who is developmentally challenged.
Tatty explains that God chose her family to take care of
Deirdre "because he loves us so much and knows
he can trust us to look after her - it took him ages to
make up his mind because God is very fussy about who gets
his special children".
Deirdre inspires intense love and commitment from her parents
and siblings, and throughher, Hickey shows us the enormous
potential for good that exist in a family gone bad.
For example, Dad, though often removed from the children's
struggles, singlehandedly teaches Deirdre to walk and to
turn her screeches into speech.
And Mam, though cracking up under the strain of her growing
family, pulls herselftogether to fight for a mainstream
education for her daughter. And in losing this battle, Mam
falls deeper into hopelessness.
Fourth child Brian, a loner and troublemaker, is in tears
as the bus comes to take his big sister to the special school.
Convinced that she doesn't want to go, he pleads with Mam
on Deirdre's behalf.
As Tatty talks about Brian, and all of her five siblings,
Hickey reminds us that even the most difficult child of
alcoholic parents is an innocent victim.
But Tatty's innocence reaches the deepest levels - only
gradually does she begin tounderstand that some of the things
which make her family different from others are bad. Big
sister Jeannie has to tell her "how to be ashamed"
of the baby Power bottles filled with milk in their lunch
bags. At boarding school, Tatty finally comes to understand
shameon her own terms.
The school gives Tatty a chance to form her first friendships,
but such closeness to other lives makes her own seem, at
last, wrong. As troubling as it is to see Tatty accept her
abusive childhood as normal, there is littlecomfort in watching
her loss of innocence.
Throughout her narration, Tatty refers to herself in the
second person - as if she is holding herself at arm's length
- or in the third person, when she seems tostep awayfrom
But as much as this allows Tatty to remove herself from
her situation, it also allows her to create a much-needed
friend. The "Tatty" she talks about becomes one
more person in her small world, one whom she can understand
completely and who will not betray her.
Such is Hickey's power that, as a reader, you'll soon feel
that you have become that very necessary person for Tatty
- someone who knows everything about her, and longs to protect
And when the book ends so suddenly that you feel you are
abandoning her, the effect is shattering. Tatty devastates
in a way that only the most unsentimental novels can.