You may have heard of Roddy Doyle, the award winning Irish author of mostly adult books. You might be old enough to remember Alan Parker's 1991 movie adaptation of Doyle's book The Commitments about a soul band in Dublin. Maybe you have read my review of Doyle's very funny, slapstick kid's book, The Giggler Treatment. If you know nothing about Doyle, let me tell you that his Irish heritage is a very big part of his writing, from the language to the landscape to the humor. I think that the marvelous, moving story of mothers and daughters that Doyle tells in his newest book, A Greyhound of a Girl, could be set anywhere, but somehow setting it in Ireland feels just right.
Death is often a part of children's literature. Death of a parent, sibling, pet, friend, it is a subject that gets fair treatment. However, in my memory, most of the books I read where a death figures into the plot, the focus is more on the child character coping with the loss. What struck me right off the bat about A Greyhound of a Girl is the way that death is a present, on going part of this story, much as it is a present, on going part of life. Losing a loved one is hard, but knowing that a loved one is nearing death and making sense and good use of the time you have left with them can be equally difficult. With the four female characters, Doyle makes death and approaching death the center of his story, weaving past and present into the plot for a very rich, emotionally uplifting story in which small things mean the most.
When we meet Mary O'Hara, she is twelve years old and walking up her street on the way home from school, simmering over the loss of her best friend and neighbor to a move across town. Mary's mother Scarlett (yes, her married name is Scarlett O'Hara, lost on young readers, but funny nonetheless) speaks in "!!" (as Doyle notes in the book) except when she is talking about her mother, Emer, who is in a hospital nearby, dying of old age. The first few chapters describe Mary her home life, and give shape to her personality, which is cheeky bordering on rude, but often blunt and upfront in a way that adults choose not to be and A Greyhound of a Girl seems to be heading a a direction you think you have read before. Then, walking home from school under the towering, rustling trees, Mary meets a young woman in old fashioned clothes who says her name is Tansey. Tansey, who seems to waver in the light at times, is both familiar and frightening to Mary, especially when she asks her to relay the message, "It'll all be grand," to Emer. Doyle's book is mostly dialogue, and many scenes are taken up with brisk, frequently funny, dialogue between (mostly) mother and daughters. While Tansey is the solid (despite her ghostly countenance) and wise presence, Emer and Mary are given to brisk banter with many Irish-isms, all of which make this story about death so full of life.
But A Greyhound of a Girl isn't so much a ghost story as it is a love story between mothers and daughters. Doyle unfolds his story, going back and forth between Tansey's life as a young mother, Emer's childhood and Scarlett's childhood. The lives of these women all revolve(d) around a farm in Wexford and the greyhounds raised there. Doyle alternates between numbered chapters and those that bear the names of the main characters, which helps as the story weaves back and forth in time and place. Tansey married onto the farm and loved every day she spent there. Doyle writing about the last healthy morning of her life is vivid and joyous and, even though she died at the age of twenty-five, she is such a powerful character that it is easy to see how she shaped the lives of her daughter who barely knew her and her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, who never knew her. And, it is easy to see how (even without understanding the politics of ghost-hood, despite her occasional explanation of aspects of the afterlife) Tansey managed to maintain an earthly presence for so many years in order to gently usher her own daughter over the threshold that separates life and death. The morning is crisp and blue and Tansey loves everything about her day, one that will keep her busy with chores of one kind and another "right up to the side of bed." After collecting eggs from the chicken coop, three year old Emer is running ahead of her with an egg to show to her granny. She's had the flu but she's well now. One passage that is especially sharp begins:
Their morning breath came out in steam, but it wasn't cold. It was one of those days, like an announcement. The sky was extra blue; the lambs down in the far field sounded as if they were right beside her. Winter was over. It would still be bright when they'd be bringing the cows in for the evening milking. Emer was wearing her coat, but, soon enough, they'd hang it up on the hook and it wouldn't come down till the other end of the year.
The climax of Doyle's book comes with a middle-of-the-night road trip. After a few visits with Tansey, Mary and Scarlett ask if she would like to see Emer. Getting the ghost into the hospital does not go so well, so they take Emer out of the hospital for a brief visit. The visit turns into the wish, from Tansey and Emer, to see the farm in Wexford, even though is was sold to another family long ago. The moments in the car, with Scarlett and Mary in the front seat, Emer and Tansey in the back, are momentous. At one point, Mary looks in the mirror to see her grandmother asleep and "she was leaning against something Mary couldn't see - as if an invisible hand was stopping her form falling sideways. And there was something else. Mary looked at one of her granny's hands. It looked like it was in midair, and holding something that Mary couldn't see. She turned now, and saw it. Her granny's hand was on Tansey's lap and holding Tansey's hand." Again, Doyle creates another vivid scene with the midnight journey to the farm, from the drive to the walk down the lane that requires Scarlett to carry her mother piggy-back after the rutted ground proves too much for Emer's wheelchair. What they see when they reach the farm is equally devastating and cathartic. How Tansey and Emer respond to it to me seems either particularly Irish or of the time (1920s) or both. When they find that the farm has been left to ruin, the thatched roof long gone, Scarlett and Mary being to weep. Emer says, "Cry for us all . . . We'll cry and then we'll stop. Because it's only a house." To which Tansey replies, "She's right. 'Tis a pity, but nothing else and nothing more."
A Greyhound of a Girl can be read for the story or for the metaphor. Either way, Doyle has written a powerful, beautiful book that reminds us all of the bonds of love and the limits of life while also presenting a collection of small moments from the lives of all four characters that remind us to pay attention to those moments in our own lives with our loved ones. As Martin Chilton says in his review of the book for The Telegraph, A Greyhound of a Girl "imparts subtle and powerful messages about the inevitable path from life to death and about the nature of getting old. It also seems to tell us to celebrate the child that remains in all of us, not matter how many wrinkles on our faces." Well said, Mr Chilton, and well written Mr Doyle. Thank you for adding this invaluable book to the shelves.