This enchanting novel, set in the Stoneybatter area of Dublin around the late 18th/early 19th centuries, is a first-person narrative by Taney Tyrell, a 13-year-old girl with the gift of second sight. Taney lodges with her family in an attic room overlooking Smithfield Market, in a world smelling of ‘boiled cabbage and sweat’. Her ability to foresee events and metaphorically to float above events that she witnesses, mark her out as ‘different’, as does her distinctive red hair. When these gifts become known, she’s accused of being a witch, but generally it’s a friendly community, marred only by a number of violent robberies, one of which ends in murder. Taney’s ability enables her to see the incidents from a distance, and she is left wondering if the culprit is somebody she knows.
The author creates a city of the imagination which is, nevertheless, rooted in the realities of Dublin’s historical geography. There are vivid, impressionistic descriptions of the livestock market and horse fair at Smithfield, and a particularly hallucinatory evocation of the Halloween bonfire in the square. Equally, we learn about social distinctions in this society, as Taney and her stepmother go ‘charring’ for a family from ‘the Quality’ – a family which seeks, in quite a genteel way, to further its own social standing through Taney’s gifts. ‘If a girl doesn’t marry and has no fortune of her own she must depend completely on the kindness of her family’, Taney is told by a fellow-lodger who is descended from gentility. Meanwhile, Taney’s ‘Da’ loses his job and has to pick over the rubbish-tip in order to provide for his family. Ultimately, we witness an example from the Irish diaspora, as Taney leaves Dublin for Bristol, driven out by her difference rather than by poverty. But, as we are reminded at the end, ‘it’s all right to be different’.
This is an engaging and engrossing story which is given a lilting momentum by the dialect used in both narrative and dialogue. It presents characters who are sympathetic and finely drawn, particularly in the description of Taney’s relationship with Billy, a charming beggar who was born without legs and who propels himself around in a bowl-on-wheels.