Female child narrators are rare in Irish Literature, while the notable presence of the male childhood is enough to form a genre of its own. Thus when Christine Dwyer Hickey’s Tatty was published to great acclaim in 2004, it was breaking new ground. It is part memoir, part novel and tells the story of a Dublin girl growing up within a troubled, alcoholic family in the 1960s and 1970s.
‘Tatty was chosen as the 2020 Dublin: One City, One Book, and republished with a new introduction by Dermot Bolger in which he acknowledges that “no voice is harder to catch than that of a child”. The task comes laden with complications around how to achieve a convincing voice and how to render the child’s contact with an adult world she cannot always understand. Dwyer Hickey achieves all of this in a deceptively simple story. Tatty’s perception develops with each of the ten chapters as she grows from four to fourteen and begins to understand what is happening all around her.
The novel is mildly experimental in its narrative format. Tatty never uses the word “I” and her telling alternates between second and third person narrative with dialogue blended in seamlessly. This could easily result in distancing the child from the reader and preventing total empathy with her plight but the authenticity of the telling is so convincing that we never doubt her word. The bestselling Irish childhood memoir, Angela’s Ashes, provides a useful comparison. Frank McCourt, whether intentionally or not, complicates his novel in search of such an authentic depiction. He declares himself as author at the outset by putting a subtitle “A memoir “ on the cover but in the oft quoted opening lines he adopts a reflective tone, declares that he will be looking back in order to evaluate and in a clear strong opinion tells us to expect bleakness since “the miserable childhood” is the only one worth telling.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Yet McCourt has established a history of criticisms of not being truthful and was accused by at least one critic of “replacing the mother with a fictional one”. In my opinion he planted nagging doubts and irritations in readers minds with his grand opening statement.
Dwyer HIckey’s approach is completely different. This is Tatty’s story and it is not narrated by her as an adult. This would have the effect of superimposing a mature understanding over that of the child. The adult perspective in the novel is supplied by the reader and Tatty’s voice is engaging enough to communicate her viewpoint. There is no obligation to keep that viewpoint consistent, since she is one year older in every chapter and is steadily maturing.
Despite its traumatic family situation, there is lots of humour in Tatty’s story. Overheard fragments of conversations and children echoing adult speech lead to many comic moments. Many of them remind me of Paddy’s observations in Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha. However while Doyle ventures into social commentary in his novel, Dwyer Hickey does not. There are no tangents and the larger world without never impedes the localised world in which Tatty exists. The book is peppered with things we can relate to – Perri crisps, Cinzano Bianco, Dubonnet, milk decanted into an empty cough bottle for lunch. The family are not impoverished and there is no absentee alcoholic father. Tatty is happy a lot of the time and the pathos is evoked from the sheer bad parenting, the cruelty of the comments, the way Tatty learns at a young age that being in her family Involves keeping secrets and lying where necessary to school friends and nosy neighbours. She and her older sister throw away their lunch milk because it is given to them in a Baby Powers bottle.
The mother’s voice is largely absent from the story and we do not know what she endures as the wife of “Dad”. The child provides glimpses of her mother’s life such as her visit to the school to try and persuade them to accept her child with special needs. Her dread of the child attending “an institution”, similar to the one her brother spends his life in. The terrible stigma attached to mental illness, which is used as an insult hurtled during a vicious row. Those circumstances were most likely the cause of her descent / dependence on alcohol rather than the father’s accusation to the children that: “you lot drove her to it…. What she has to put up with from you lot”. A single chapter from the mother’s point of view would have been electric.
There are no judgements or overdramatizing of events in Tatty’s story. Again this contrasts with McCourt, who is cynical and critical. The novel ends in a suspended moment. A modestly optimistic interpretation would be that Tatty and her sister have observed enough different possibilities to realise a different life than their mother. Their Dad outlines big changes for the household but does not include his own behaviour in the grand plan so the reader is left in doubt.
Tatty is a great choice for the prestigious Dublin: One City, One Book, a great initiative by Dublin City Council that annually encourages everyone to read a book connected with the capital city. Although its themes and concerns are universal, this book connects with the city in so many ways and captures the era of the 1960s and 1970s very well, the voices ringing true throughout. Although the campaign around the book which was scheduled for April had to be cancelled, some live events will take place later in the year.
Dublin: One City, One Book is an award-winning Dublin City Council initiative, led by Dublin City Libraries, which encourages everyone to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year. Further details on the Dublin: One City, One Book initiative and events can be found here.
Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey is published by New Island Books with an introduction by Dermot Bolger (Feb 2020).