Christine Dwyer Hickey came to prominence back in 2004 when Tatty, her novel of a Dublin childhood, won universal acclaim. She had already published a trilogy set in Dublin, and has since featured the city in two more novels. In The Cold Eye of Heaven, Dublin plays a starring role. This sense of place is central in her first short story collection too; and so skilfully that it seems the city must be rooted in the author’s soul.
Tatty was told through the eyes of a young girl; The Cold Eye of Heaven through those of a dying man, and Dwyer Hickey uses a wide range of narrators in these stories. They cover all ages, all types, and every voice sounds authentic and true.
Absence features a returning emigrant who stands at the edge of a relative’s funeral; The Yellow Handbag is a poignant exchange between an immigrant taxi-driver, whose car is his home, and an increasingly disillusioned American tourist. The opening story, featuring a girl attending a racecourse with her father, is reminiscent of Tatty.
Children feature in other stories too; notably in ‘The House on Parkgate Street’. These young protagonists are observers of life; and there’s a strong sense of their helplessness, watching as the adults around them suffer or lie. They are told to keep secrets that they don’t quite understand. Through their eyes the adults’ actions can seem bizarre. But there are reasons for Lucia’s oddness in ‘La Staniera’, and in the boy’s aunt’s grief in ‘Esther’s House’.
I admired, and enjoyed all the stories in this collection, but my favourite was ‘Teatro La Fenice’. Two elderly women stroll down to a river. Claire is vociferous; the other woman, the narrator, listens, but feels bemused.
The women are in a rather beautiful retirement home, and the narrator is in the early stages of dementia.
As Clare witters on about her family; their lovely home, their jobs and their gadgets, the narrator tries to summon up her own past. She remembers a man’s hand holding hers, and thinks they might have been somewhere foreign. She’s almost sure they were in love. But she daren’t say anything to the indomitable Clare.
By the end of the afternoon the balance between the women — of the needy and the needed — subtly shifts, and we see their situation in a new way. It’s clever; original; and beautifully told.
All the stories give us a tantalising glimpse at disparate lives. We are never told too much; rather we’re left with some questions to ponder at leisure.
These are stories to savour.