The Cold Eye of Heaven, By Christine Dwyer Hickey

In this stunning reverse-chronology novel, the dead bloom back into life, and Ireland has a vibrant, rosy past
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Christine Dwyer Hickey's previous novel, the Prix L'Europeen-nominated Last Train from Liguria, floated through decades, binding wisps of story together, while the Orange-listed Tatty collated shards of tragicomedy into a mosaic of an Irish childhood. Now The Cold Eye of Heaven marries the techniques, spanning time to create a hauntingly poignant portrait of a Dublin existence, rendered, as is every life in close-up, extraordinary.

An old man who lives alone, Farley, is lying on his bathroom floor having suffered a stroke. His probable fate is made horribly real to us in achingly lyrical prose, which brings poetry not only to the beautiful – "a sugary frost on the window pane" – but to the profane – "the white porcelain rise of the (toilet) bowl's exterior like a dowager's throat". Ashamed at his dishevelment, Farley relinquishes the chance to call for help. His mind sifts through his past, the grains of his story falling in reverse chronological order. The past peels away like layers of wallpaper, each stratum bringing secrets and hopes and throwing light on incidents from later life.

The reader is transported first to the previous day, when Farley's routine was altered by a death. There are hints that Farley and the deceased, Slowey, had not been on speaking terms. Nevertheless, Farley is determined to pay his respects.

Dwyer Hickey's eye for detail has the reader hooked, whether it's the humour of Farley's irascibility ("her face is bulged from the cold and there's a jellied, goitre look about her eyes"), or the pathos of him driving himself out in bitter winter for the sake of paying his dues to his erstwhile friend while suffering warning mini-strokes, an inability to find the right word, and the loss of vision from one side.

The action then leaps back in decades, and small brush strokes transform our view: Farley brought presents for others on his retirement day; his leaving do was crammed with wellwishers; he was loved. Here, Dwyer Hickey starkly portrays the cruelty of ageing: how could Farley be so alone just 10 years on?

Each layer stripped off reveals more truths. Farley loved his wife; fell apart after her death; sought someone who reminded him of her. The previously blurred significance of various images, such as a baby and a lake from an adult nightmare, throbs into painful focus. The different incarnations of Dublin are illuminated – the wealth before the recession, the Irish football team's success during the 1990 World Cup, the H-Block demonstrations in 1980, the bank strike and Nixon's visit in 1970. The history of the building in which Farley works also unfolds: lately corporate and anonymous, it once housed sisters, a suicidal tailor, a ballet school. We find out how Farley developed his love of Italian opera and how he met his future wife and her kid sister, as well as his own family dynamics.

Chronologically inverted narration can, in inexperienced hands, be jarring, but here, the billowing to life of individuals previously deceased is like time-lapse photography of flowers, viewed in reverse: the dying and dead bloom into blossom, throb with vibrancy, then recurl into buds, poised with fresh foetal hope.

Dwyer Hickey's writing is acutely insightful and perfectly balances sorrow, joy and humour. Weepingly moving passages are juxtaposed with hilariously irreverent dialogue worthy of Roddy Doyle. Dwyer Hickey's flair is apparent in the smallest touches, such as the "black apostrophe of a cat on a wall". Yet lyricism is not achieved at the expense of humanity.

This stunning novel has at its core the pulsing heart of love that drives the circulation of every being, but it also incorporates themes of ageing, betrayal and change. The initial premise may not seem promising – an old man is struck down towards the end of his life; just one of the billions of individuals constituting the mass of life and death. But as with all history, the fascination and heartbreak is in the richness and complexity of every life examined.