FRANCES KAY’S first novel is a searing, uncompromising story about a deprived, neglected child, 10-year-old Micka. It left me enraged and tearful, the first time I’ve cried on finishing a book since Black Beauty.
I remember feeling a little foolish, crying about a fictional horse, Black Beauty, but I had no qualms this time: these were tears of rage, because some children get such a poor deal in life, and have their hopes and talent snuffed out early by circumstances beyond their control.
The novel is written in Micka’s voice and that of his friend, Laurie, and both voices ring horribly true. Laurie, a new boy at Micka’s school, is a middle-class 11-year-old, living through his parents’ divorce. His father is cold and emotionless, while his mother is so eccentric that you question her sanity. Laurie, a confused and disturbed child, lives in a world of his own, gleaned from his reading of the encyclopaedia.
Micka lives on a so-called sink estate, somewhere in the north of England, in real poverty: he does not have an outdoor coat, and is permanently hungry. His circumstances contrast painfully with his natural, childish optimism. Family members come and go, including his kindly Irish grandmother, his uncle, a murderer who is released early from prison to die of Aids, his violent eldest brother, Lee, and his cowed brother, Kevo, who does his feeble best to protect Micka from Lee’s attacks.
The only permanent fixture at home is his illiterate, dysfunctional mother, who is pregnant again, and more interested in whiskey than in Micka. The book is written from Micka’s point of view: ‘I asked Mam could I have a little pup for my birthday and it could sleep on my bed. I would call it Zak.’
But when he wakes up on his birthday, there is no pup, and the house is empty. His mother has gone to social security to find out why the giro hasn’t come, and Kevo has stayed out all night. There will be no food until the giro is cashed, so Micka visits his Traveller friends in Royts Lane, who are kinder to the red-haired, half-Irish child than his own family. His Traveller friend, Blue, finds him a pup.
What inspired Frances Kay to write this book? How did she make Micka’s voice so convincing? How does she know what it’s like to be Micka?
There are two answers. The first lies in her own childhood, where she experienced periods of great loneliness, though without the brutal home life: “It couldn’t have been more different, but I do connect with Micka in his isolation, very much,” she says.
The second answer is her ‘day job’, working in children’s theatre. Her plays are now performed by professional actors, but, in the 1970s, she and her husband, John, ran a community theatre company.
“Our mission was to take theatre to places that had never seen it. We did summer projects in adventure playgrounds, interactive drama projects, the kids would join in, and we’d have songs and performance,” she says.
This was when she met, as she puts it, ‘lots of Mickas’, first in Birmingham, then in Scotland and Newcastle, and later in Dublin, where she worked in Rialto, Finglas and Ballymun. She says: “Working in community arts, you are outside a school, and there are no boundaries, you build a relationship with the children, and they bring their whole life to the project. I was facilitating drama and you can only do that from a basis of trust, where you listen to what they say. So that’s how I know Micka, first from the inside, from my own childhood, and then from outside.”
Micka has been 10 years in the writing, in between other projects, one of which was a move with her second husband, musician, Nico Brown, from Bray to a farmhouse in the hills of west Cork.
A warm, down-to-earth character, Frances is still revelling in the peace and natural beauty around her new home, even though the location means that they both have to travel in order to work.
Frances is keen to credit the eventual publication of Micka to a course in advanced novel writing given by Carlo Gébler at the West Cork Literary Festival, in 2008: “He was wonderful, so generous. At the end of that week, I realised there’s nothing wrong with my writing, but there’s a lot wrong with my attitude to selling it. Then, I entered a competition, and the London agent, Annette Green, took me on. Within 24 hours, ten editors had read Micka. They were saying this book is scary, it’s horrible, we’d like to publish it, but we don’t know if we have the nerve. Then, Picador took it on,” she says.
It is painful to read, and must have been difficult to write: “Yes, but, at the back of my mind, I wanted to make the story as gripping as I could. That meant going beyond my comfort zone, and, for some readers, going beyond theirs, too,” she says.
What of the people who will not read Micka for fear it upsets them: “Obviously, what you choose to read for your own pleasure is up to you. I think that the people who will enjoy this book are the people that come face to face with deprived or abused children in the course of their work. I hope they will feel validated, and that somebody is speaking up for the kind of problems they are being faced with.
“The other thing is that this is a story, and it’s up to the reader to decide, at the end, if there is any redemption in the story. I’m not out to change society, I’m just out to speak up for children, and to hope that this book might help things to change for some of the children in need,” she says.
- Frances Kay’s play, Telling the Emperor, will be performed at the Granary Theatre, Cork, on 27-28 August.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved