Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

"'Are you really a ghost?'
'Oh, I am.'
 'And you're really my mother?'
'Yes,' said Tansey.  'I am.'
'I'll tell you what's really weird, then,' said Emer.  'I'm not all that surprised."

Anyone out there have a family ghost story?  I do.  When my grandfather was a teenager in Poland many years ago, he apprenticed as a metalworker with his uncle, who was horrible to him.  After two years of apprenticeship, my grandfather ran away and returned to his family farm.  Later, after my grandfather had moved to Canada and married, he saw his uncle in a dream and his uncle apologized for having been so mean to him.  A few weeks later,  he got a letter from his family in Poland telling him that his uncle had died the night of that dream. 

Sounds like an urban legend, doesn't it?  There are a lot of family ghost stories like that kicking around, tales of familiar family members coming back to say goodbye, reconcile, or bring comfort rather than spook or scare.  Roddy Doyle's latest book is a family ghost story, but it's not noir or gothic.  It's really just a lovely inter-generational family story, where one of the family members happens to be a ghost.  Doyle described it in a recent interview as "the afterlife from the perspective of an atheist".   It revolves around four generations of women;  Mary O'Hara (a twelve-year-old girl), her mother Scarlett, her grandmother Emer, who is dying, and her ghostly great-grandmother Tansey.

Tansey isn't the kind of ghost who is particularly mysterious or threatening.  She first appears to Mary outside Mary's  home,  and opens up by chatting about the weather.  She's a little strange--her clothes look old-fashioned and she doesn't get wet in the rain--and she wants Mary to "tell your granny it'll all be grand."  Mary's a bit taken aback, but not really scared:

"Mary should have been worried, maybe even frightened.  She was worried, and a bit frightened.  But not nearly as much as she thought she should have been.  This woman had come out of nowhere.  She knew Mary's name and all about her granny--Mary should have been terrified.  But she wasn't.  Something about the woman, the way she spoke, her face, her smile--she seemed familiar.  Mary didn't know her--but she did."

We learn that Tansey, who died when her daughter Emer (Mary's granny) was only three, has hung around in spirit, keeping an eye on Emer, because leaving her didn't feel right.  And now Emer is an old woman, dying and kind of scared about it,  and Tansey wants to ease her mind. How that happens involves all four generations and is the essence of the story. 

One of the reasons I liked A Greyhound of a Girl so much is that Doyle really conveys the emotional intimacy of  family life, but he's not at all melodramatic or obvious about it.  He's very subtle.  The theme of loss is  handled so delicately, and the warmth and comfort of family love is always there.  If ever a ghost story could be life-affirming, this one would be it.  

Roddy Doyle, of course, is a well-established writer of both adult and children's fiction.  His novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the 1993 Booker Prize.