STANDING up, as she’s about to leave, Louise Phillips, author of the just-named Irish Crime Novel of the Year The Doll’s House may have cried as she told me about the dark place where her novels originate.
But what happened to the family was not her parents’ fault: “We were loved,” she says.
When she was seven she was longing for her new baby sister Rose to come home from hospital: “They went on the bus and they brought a doll’s pram because they didn’t have a baby’s one. The hospital told them the baby was dead. And they got the bus home, the three of them, with an empty doll’s pram.”
Nothing was said but Louise has a memory of her mother coming through the door: “She was hunched, like a black shadow. She just went straight to the bedroom.”
Rose had lived for five days. Soon afterwards, a son was stillborn. “In my heart of hearts,” says Louise, ” I think it had to be connected to the poverty.”
Louise was raised in the 1960s in the Mount Pleasant tenements in Rathmines, made notorious by Lee Dunne’s Goodbye to the Hill. She describes it as “a hellhole”.
“My memory of that time is just grey,” she says. “I used to get up early most mornings so I could see the sun coming up over the building in front of us. That was the only bit of colour that ever came into that place.”
There were four surviving children in the flat and she and her sister shared her parents’ bedroom. But her mother fought to give them a decent childhood. Louise breaks down when she thinks of the makeshift swing her mother hung in the doorway. She believes now that her mother planted ambition in them. Week after week she brought them to the library. Her brother Tom Ray graduated from building his own telescopes to become professor of physics at TCD, one of the youngest professors ever.
But Louise internalised her mother’s shame about the flats and told no-one where she lived, looking up and down the road before she darted out the door to go to school. “It has affected me. I still try too hard. My first book (Red Ribbons) only came out 18 months ago and it was shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year. My second book won it, out of 36 Irish crime novels published this year.”
She has worked equally hard at the marketing of the books, interacting with her many readers via social media. But I can’t believe how low her profile has been so far. I am forced to conclude it’s because she’s not “one of us”. She didn’t go to college. She doesn’t have literary friends. She just gets up at six in the morning and writes.
And the horror she experienced in childhood, of lost children and lost childhoods, dominates her work. In Red Ribbons she tells of innocent young girls in shallow graves, their bones broken and their hair plaited by an assailant whose own innocence had also been stolen. In The Doll’s House a middle-aged woman tries to cope with her memories of a dead baby by retreating to childhood and talking to her dolls.
I used to live in the house in which the book is set, facing the sea in Sandymount. There is no such number on the road, counters Louise. But I lived in it before it was demolished. Spooky or what? Louise likes the spooks. Her house in the Dublin mountains was the last hiding place of Robert Emmet in 1803 and all around her are the unmarked graves of Famine victims.
She and her industrial electrician husband, Robert, have travelled a long way to be able to look down on Dublin. Although Louise left school at 15 because she was offered a job in an office, ambition was already stirring. At 18 she decided to do the Leaving Certificate at the Leeson Street Institution of Higher Education. An English teacher flicked her writer’s switch.
“He said everyone in this room is unique. Everyone is valued. Their view of the work in question is their correct view.”
But after a few attempts, the switch was on “pause” for 25 years while Louise worked in the Bank of Ireland and raised three children. When her youngest turned 14, she went straight to a writers’ group in Old Bawn, Tallaght. She was asked to write a poem, a short story and outline a novel and before the session ended she did all three. When her husband met her at the front door, she said, “I can’t talk to you, I have to go upstairs and write.”
She was a woman in a hurry. The novelist Dermot Bolger selected her for a writers’ workshop run by South Dublin County Council and she began winning prizes.
Her life has worked out a hell of a lot better than her mother’s. Mountpleasant flats have been levelled. Birth control and relative affluence mean a writer like Louise Phillips can emerge and we can at last witness the rich experience of childhood, motherhood and grandmotherhood being mined in Irish literature.
“I would definitely say that my children were my biggest achievement,” she says. “I would give up my life in a second to help them.”
She says the fear of something happening to her girls was probably behind Red Ribbons but she couldn’t have written it when they were younger. Now she minds her grand-daughter two days a week and looks forward to a new grandchild in March, just after she finishes her third novel. She delights in her daughter’s abilities as a mother and loves to see life working out for her kids.
But the niggle from childhood is where the novels are: “Seeing them so happy, the thought of something happening to them becomes elevated.”
* The Doll’s House by Louise Phillips Hachette Books, (€18.75).
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