My grandmother died in January. We were expecting it for a while. She had been in and out of the hospital for months, her diabetes causing circulation problems with her legs to the point where he body could no longer keep up. I had realized prior to that what a loss my grandmother would be, but it was still hard for me to understand how it would feel—this was the first death in my family that I had experienced. Sometimes, the isolated nature of our cognition inevitably leads to a mild form of solipsism. It is hard to conceptualize of other people, previous generations, having adventures and experiences and memories of their own. My grandmother saw and did so much that I just can’t know about any more. It’s so weird, thinking that all these unique experiences that she had are now lost.
I don’t believe in ghosts. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool to entertain the notion of the existence of ghosts. What if my grandma were still around, haunting us, watching us grow and change and have our own children? That’s what Mary’s great-grandmother does in A Greyhound of a Girl. When she dies from flu at the beginning of the century, she stays on the family farm as a ghost, hidden from sight but privy to the life of her child, Emer. Tansey watches as Emer grows up and has her own daughter, Scarlett, who in turn gives birth to Mary. Four generations on, Scarlett and Mary live in Dublin, the family farm long ago sold to a neighbour as the family diminished and broke apart. Mary’s grandmother, Emer, lies in hospital at the end of her life, and one day while walking home from school, Mary meets a peculiarly-dressed woman who calls herself Tansey. It takes a while for Mary to realize that Tansey is the ghost of her great-grandmother. After this, she introduces Tansey to her mother (like you do), and they reunite grandmother with great-grandmother before embarking on a touching road trip.
With A Greyhound Girl, Roddy Doyle explores the connections, implicit and explicit, between generations of women in an Irish family. It’s ultimately something explored from a child’s perspective, despite chapters told from the limited third-person view of Tansey, Scarlett, and Emer. This is Mary’s story, the story of how the youngest in the generation somehow brings together the older three for one, last moment of shared experience.
The ghost aspect definitely adds something here. Indeed, it’s essential, because it allows Tansey to be absent while simultaneously witnessing Emer’s life. This would be a very different story if Tansey had been present, had known Emer, and a different story still if Tansey had been absent but somehow alive. By reintroducing Tansey as a ghost, ripped from Emer in an untimely manner by disease, Doyle sidesteps the need to address recriminations. Emer, at the end of her life and ready to find peace, deals with Tansey’s unexpected presence with the equanimity that only those who have accepted their forthcoming death possess.
But so does Scarlett. And Mary. I mean, I can understand a child, particularly a twelve-year-old who has decided she knows everything about the world and nothing can surprise her, reacting with a weary haughtiness. And maybe Scarlett is just a particularly hip mother? The fact remains that all three react to Tansey’s existence in essentially the same way. Mary tells her mom that Tansey is a ghost, and mom doesn’t bat an eye. They all smile and exchange polite words and then go off to visit Emer in the hospital, Tansey in tow.
There is a notable lack of drama or conflict in this book.
There, I said it.
Even the fact that Emer is dying, and that she gets to meet her mother after all these years, feels less sensational than turning on a television. All of these characters are just so cool and collected, so glib and flip with their dialogue, that they don’t seem alive. They don’t seem real. There is precious little fighting between mother-and-daughter—Mary prefers, instead, to spend her time tracking whether or not Scarlett’s sentences end with !!!. I groaned the first time I read that exchange and quickly skimmed any further such paragraphs as they appeared. In his attempts to give his characters depth and definition, Doyle just reduces them to trite exchanges better suited for a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Generational stories are hard to do. To work effectively, they need a real sense of loss and sacrifice. They need secrets, moments of haunting, twisted darkness that have been repressed down the decades. They need confrontation and revelation. There is very little of that present in this book. Beyond Emer’s loss of Tansey as an infant and subsequent reunion now, just prior to her death, there is little hardship or suffering. The reunion doesn’t lead to much in the way of conflict. No one yells or screams. There is some sadness and melancholy, as one might expect from people who are watching a relative slowly decline. But sadness alone does not a compelling story make.
For a novel that culminates in a road trip, there is hardly any sense of adventure. Worse still, there is no sense of danger. This experience changes Mary and Scarlett; they become different people for having known Tansey and seen this side of Emer. Nevertheless, when I read a novel, I need to be more than a voyeur to an extended family reunion. I need something that is going to grip me by threatening real, three-dimensional characters. A Greyhound Girl doesn’t do any of that.
What saves this from a one-star rating, in my mind, is some of Doyle’s writing. The dialogue is corny and the characterization flatter than an opened bottle of Coke. Yet he still manages to capture some of the truths about family life. Mary’s brothers, for instance, who seem so alien and remote having hit puberty. Or, as I mentioned previously, the doom that tinges every aspect of their day as they contemplate Emer’s decline in hospital. These little things hint at a skill that Doyle deploys more effectively, according to other reviewers, in his other books, none of which I’ve read.
A Greyhound Girl feels like a book that is either too big or too small—in terms of scope, not length. To truly sprawl in a generational sense, it needs more girth. Or, Doyle could have gone the other way, focused on the relationship between mothers and daughters. Instead, he treads some middle ground between the pinnacles of the two extremes. As a result, rather than being a successful synthesis of the two approaches, the book is an unambitious presentation of an unexamined story.