Several years ago, the Irish writer Roddy Doyle published a children’s picture book called “Her Mother’s Face.” It told the story of a girl whose mother is dead and who lives in a desolate world with her bereaved father. The child is comforted by a mysterious stranger — an emissary from the afterlife, perhaps, or a figment of her imagination — and grows up to have a daughter of her own. Now, in a book for all ages titled “A Greyhound of a Girl,” Doyle revisits this theme of childhood loss and matriarchal consolation.
Mary O’Hara is 12 and cheeky. She lives in Dublin with her mother, father and two teenage brothers who are “boring and weird.” Mary’s best friend has left the neighborhood, her grandmother is dying in the hospital, and Mary fears that her childhood, too, is slipping away. One afternoon, she meets an oddly antique woman who seems to know her dying granny. When the stranger’s identity is revealed, Mary realizes that “her world was suddenly full of the dead and the dying, people she loved and people she was supposed to love.” The cocky girl is suddenly angry and afraid. “You look like your granny and I look like mine,” she snaps at her mother. “So what, like? Your granny is a ghost and mine is dying. And that’s the only thing that isn’t stupid.”
Doyle leavens this melancholy tone with the rapid-fire Dublin humor familiar to us from his novels “The Commitments,” “The Van” and “The Snapper.” But we are reminded that Doyle’s fiction, whatever the intended age level, is never entirely sunny and that childhood bereavement is a perennial subject. “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” for example, has a dead mother in its opening page, an abused one at its conclusion and plenty of suffering in between.
Kindness, however, not cruelty pervades “A Greyhound of a Girl” as the narrative shuttles back and forth in time from Mary’s modern Dublin, wonderfully evoked, to her mother’s and grandmother’s less hurried rural past.
Mary is not so sure about the strange woman whose clothes and speech recall a pre-modern Ireland and whose body seems weirdly insubstantial. “It was like a television screen in sunlight. The woman’s dress, all of the woman, had faded, become colorless. Then, quickly, as if a curtain had been closed to block the light . . . the woman and her colors were sharp again.” The stranger is, of course, Mary’s great-grandmother, who died in 1928 but has been watching over her own daughter ever since.
At the heart of this affecting novel is a journey that Mary and the three women — two living and one dead — make from the city to the country, from the present to the past, and to the mysterious hinterlands of memory and longing.
A GREYHOUND OF A GIRL
By Roddy Doyle
Amulet. 201 pp. $16.95