HellFire by Mia Gallagher

Magic, drugs and rock 'n' roll
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The Independent Culture

At first glance, Mia Gallagher's debut novel Hellfire seems a conventional Bildungsroman: a 650-page account of the life of a young Dublin woman named Lucy Dolan. Dolan describes herself as "some fucked-up little boy-chested plain runty gee-less imaginary-lezzer outta-control hindrance of a street junkie that was always more trouble than she was worth". She has a hard life, including heroin addiction at 14; an abusive mother; episodes of pyromania; bogus psychiatric evaluations that include depression, psychosis and Asperger's; a cousin who goes to prison for fraud. As a teenager she has a spell in a mental hospital and, later, nine years in prison, but these problems are minor compared to the two darker narratives that drive this novel: an exploration of the malevolent influence of black magic and a wannabe Satanist on this young girl's impoverished existence; and behind that, how the machinations of gangsters involved in the drug trade damage her family.

It's granny's fault. From an early age, Lucy prefers the company of her grandmother, and this superstitious woman introduces her to the tarot and tells her bedtime stories about Satan that make her susceptible to manipulation. The entire novel is addressed to Nayler, a smack-addled Nick Cave fan who seduces Lucy's mother, introduces her to heroin and forces her to wager her body and soul to him in a game of poker. He also appears to be involved with the "black magic ritual killin" (sic) of her sister Sam, and initiates Lucy into the HellFire club, a small knot of wastrels who want to introduce (black) magic into their lives, but are actually patsies in gang warfare. Later, Lucy slashes the neck of an airline official, believing he is keeping her from getting to Nayler. The prison sections that follow are the best part of the book.

Gallagher's novel has a similar scope to Newfoundland, Rebbecca Ray's huge 2005 novel about a small town in Wales, the large canvas allowing Gallagher to go into similar detail about the social interactions of her Dublin residents. It also resembles some of the more outré fiction of Glen Duncan, especially his fourth novel Weathercock, which was also concerned with black magic - although, unlike Duncan, a lapsed Catholic, Gallagher largely avoids mentioning Christianity as an alternative path to the one her characters have taken, aside from a brief description of how religion screws everything up. For Lucy, the occult largely replaces sex as a hedonistic possibility; this is a book about magic, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Magic and drug-related murder is a strange fictional combination, but in Gallagher's assured hands an entertaining one. HellFire is the darker, grungier, flipside to Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and all the other witches and wizards currently casting spells over willing readers.