Tatty – Christine Dwyer Hickey (New Island 2004)


The lasting impression that this novel had on me is the sheer quality of the writing. This was Irish author Christine Dwyer- Hickey’s fourth novel, the first after her “Dublin Trilogy”. At the time it attracted considerable attention, was nominated for the Orange Prize, was on the shortlist for the Irish Novel of The Year (the Hughes and Hughes award) and appeared on the list of 50 Best Irish Novels of the Decade. All very deserving accolades.

This is a tale of alcoholism, seen through the eyes of a child, Tatty. Set over a period of ten years, the curse of heavily drinking parents shadows Tatty but does not overwhelm her. She is very much her own character and, particularly in her younger years is a delightful narrator. I do so often enjoy novels about childhood and Tatty is much the same age as me and there are points of identification, although her Irish childhood with alcoholic parents is so different to mine.

It’s a tale obviously tinged with heartbreak and yet it is also very funny and is written with great style and observation and steeped in the period of the 60’s-70’s. The child’s eye view writing is extremely well done and totally convincing. Tatty relates a visit to an aunt house and what happens when she misbehaves;

“Aunt June doesn’t smack you but she sends you up to your room. Except it’s not your room because it’s in her house, and the big cousins are all in school, and the one with the pink lipstick and the flick in her hair is in work, so that means you have the room all to yourself.

You can look at their comics and mess with their stuff. You can open the vanity case and look at the lipstick and the hairnet with the pink and blue curlers for making the flick tucked up inside. You can stand on the bed and read the funny names of all the people in the pictures on the wall. You can wonder why the boys have two names each: Gene Pitney, Herman Hermit. But the girls only have one: Lulu, Cilla. Or the one with the black face that’s called Millie.”

That passage transports me to being secretly in my sisters’ bedroom. I love the combination of observation with the child’s perceptions on those observations.

Things get increasingly difficult for Tatty at home and her parents are unable to cope and she is eventually sent away to boarding school. With Tatty as our guide the horrors of alcoholism seem less grim and yet this does not diffuse any of the power of this novel.

I have not read anything else by Christine Dwyer Hickey but since this book she has published another three novels, a collection of short stories and a play all of which have been very well received which suggests she is an author of great significance. Her website states that “Tatty” has this year been translated into Arabic. I hope that it provides as much enjoyment in translation as did for me.