The widely acclaimed Roddy Doyle (his Barrytown Trilogy can regularly be found on ‘Top 100’ lists and the like) has a chance to make history this year. Yes, in case you’re not the sort of person who doesn’t pay attention to these literary prize thingies, he’s in with a shout of being the first author to claim both the prestigious Booker prize and the even more prestigious(!) Carnegie Medal. The last author to do a Carnegie-based double was the wonderful Neil Gaiman, and then of course we’ve recently witnessed Hilary Mantel become the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, not to mention winning both the Booker and Costa in the same year, so Doyle has a chance to join some exalted company indeed.
Greyhound of a Girl is, of course, set in Ireland, and spans four generations of the female clan in the O’Hara family. The modern day thread follows Mary, a somewhat precocious twelve year old coming to terms with the impending death of her grandmother, Emer. Emer hasn’t completely got over the loss of her own mother, Tansey, who succumbed to flu when Emer was just a little girl herself: her biggest regret is never properly saying goodbye that fateful day. Tansey feels there is unfinished business too, so makes a return herself to take care of the wounds and help Emer leave this life with no regrets. So she comes back…as a ghost.
Despite its supernatural angle, Greyhound of a Girl is very much a gentle tale, intermingling sadness with humour. This is Roddy Doyle, after all, and I’m yet to come across a novel of his that isn’t an uplifting tale about working class Irish folk triumphing in the face of some adversity. So how much you like this book could well be determined by the extent to which you go for this sort of thing, and how much you can forgive Doyle for playing it safe and sticking to what he knows. Personally, I have a certain amount of patience for feel good, triumph-over-tragedy tales, but not much for Doyle doing it yet again after so many years.
That may seem rather unfair, as Greyhound of a Girl is not a bad book. The prose is simple but effective, and some familiar “Doyleian” hallmarks do work well, such as Mary’s unruly brothers, Dommo and Killer. The Greyhound motif is cleverly used, and Doyle doesn’t let too much sentimentality seep in to his story. But when all’s said and done, this is nothing special really. Tales of loss and heartache from a child’s point of view are everywhere you look in children’s/YA fiction, and there’s nothing original in either the style or the content here to make it stand out from the crowd. That, if I’m honest, is pretty much how I feel about Roddy Doyle’s fiction in general. Greyhound of a Girl is a decent enough read, yes, but certainly not Carnegie Medal winning material for me.