It was Cathy at 746 Books who first alerted me to Susannah Dickey’s debut. Cathy’s reliably impeccable taste meant Tennis Lessons went straight on my ever lengthening wishlist. Dickey’s also a poet, giving me another reason to read it. Poets so often write good fiction. From the blurb, I thought it would be a straightforward, entertaining coming-of-age novel but Dickey’s book turned out to be rather darker than that. Following its unnamed narrator from her childhood into her late twenties, Tennis Lessons unfolds the story of a young woman, out of step with her peers, struggling to find a niche for herself.
Our narrator is a bright, imaginative child, whose mother seizes every opportunity to feed her daughter’s curiosity about the world. She knows her parents’ marriage is difficult, that her father’s move to the spare room is not a good sign, further confirmed as she listens to their rows and wonders about the many times her father comes home late from work. Her mother’s depression is exacerbated when her much loved twin brother dies, never quite dissipating. Secondary school is happily anticipated, the gateway to new worlds of knowledge, but it’s difficult. Making friends is hard but Racheal saves her, inviting her to join Bethan and Charlie who uses her sharp tongue to keep her in her place. Our narrator struggles through adolescence, Racheal a constant ally but not quite brave enough to challenge Charlie’s barbs. Her grades slip and she drinks too much as her parents continue their march towards splitting up. On Racheal’s eighteenth birthday, things take a very dark turn. The next ten years will see our narrator taking steps forward and back until she finally finds a place to fit.
You wonder if she likes her life, or if she, like you, is dependent on the idea that things will improve
Dickey narrates her story in the second person which always takes a little while to get used to for me but perseverance pays off. Our unnamed narrator’s life unfolds in a series of episodic vignettes beginning when she’s just three. Her early years are bright snapshots of an eccentric, insatiably curious little girl, lengthening into longer episodes as she grows up, becoming more aware of the disconnect between herself and her peers. She compensates for her social awkwardness with a caustic wit, sealing her friendship with Racheal with smart repartee, a routine that plays out between them through the long friendship which is the saving of her. Adolescence is excruciatingly well portrayed, particularly Charlie’s cruelty for which she has her own reasons. Dickey leaves much unsaid, crediting her readers with the intelligence to infer, and her book is all the better for it. Not always a comfortable read, then, but a witty, compassionate one which champions the value of friendship.
Doubleday: London 9780857526861 256 pages Hardback