I came upon this book while searching for new reads by Irish authors. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a writer based in Co Wicklow, fit the bill perfectly; ‘Dark Warning’ was my first introduction to her work. Since reading it I have also purchased ‘Hagwitch’, another of her books, and I’m on the lookout for ‘Timecatcher’, which I believe is her first novel.
So, you might be able to guess that I’ve become a fan.
I was intrigued by the premise of this book, which takes place in Georgian Dublin. It’s not a setting I’ve often come across in fiction, and I was immediately interested. The novel is steeped in the language, slang and geography of that period, including places and streetnames (like the wonderful Thundercut Alley and Smithfield Market) and is extremely well written from that point of view. This is helped by the fact that Ms. Fitzpatrick chooses to take a real-life Dublin character of that time, ‘Billy-the-Bowl,’ as a major character in her story, weaving events from his life through the tale of her protagonist, young Taney Tyrell. If you’re going to read this story, and you don’t already know the legend of ‘Billy-the-Bowl’ (sometimes ‘Billy-in-the-Bowl’), then don’t Google him beforehand and spoil the surprise for yourself. Let the story unfold as it should, is my advice.
Taney lives in Smithfield, in the city centre, with her Da, her stepmother Mary Kate, and her (extremely cute-sounding) little brother Jon Jon. Her mother died when Taney was a child, but despite this she is a living, breathing presence throughout the story. Her mother’s life, and aspects of her character, live on in Taney; she resembles her, and shares some of her otherworldly talents. From our first meeting with Taney, we realise that she has gifts which transcend the ‘norm’ – she can see things before they happen, and has the potential to read fortunes, though this is a talent we see her develop as the book goes on. Most frighteningly, she sometimes loses control of her ‘spirit’, drifting away from her body with a sense of tempting freedom, and must struggle hard to control this. Taney is often told how dangerous her gifts are, and is told only that they ‘destroyed’ her mother – she isn’t told why or how. Also, she must keep them secret, though this proves difficult. Ella’s fate is darkly hinted at throughout, though Taney doesn’t find out exactly what happened to her mother, and how it’s connected to their shared gifts, until the end of the story.
Taney meets Billy by the shores of the river Liffey one day after a particularly bad spell of bullying by the other children in her locality. He saves her from their mistreatment, and they become close friends. I got the impression that Taney develops a crush on Billy, though she never says anything to that effect – he is described (in accordance with the historical record of him) as being remarkably handsome and personable, as well as extremely charming and friendly, and well known by all. Billy is noteworthy also because has been born without legs, and manages to get around in his ‘bowl’ – or, a half-barrel, made specially for him by the coopers in Jameson’s Whiskey Distillery. He uses this bowl, together with two ‘clubs’, to speed around the cobbled streets he calls home. Rejected by his mother at birth, Billy was raised by nuns, and is constantly on the run from inspectors from the House of Industry, who want to take him in. Billy knows this will spell his doom – he’ll be condemned to a life of hard labour and grim living conditions, for such is what was done with the differently abled in previous eras – and he wishes to avoid this at all costs. So, he and Taney become a team. He protects her from bullies, and she keeps him from his violent, self-destructive depressions, and from harm.
Where this takes a turn for the dark is when Billy discovers Taney’s talents. He begins to make use of her for his own ends, asking her to help him in his gambling exploits. Soon, they amass a healthy fortune, and Taney dreams of escaping to London, to start anew in a city where neither she, nor her talents, are known. Then, her stepmother starts to bring her to work with her in an attempt to take her mind off her ‘dreaming’ – i.e. her gifts – and so her life as a charwoman begins, working in a ‘big house’ for a wealthy family. Billy runs into some difficulty, and she gives him her savings in order to help him out of it, hoping to earn it back and keep her dreams on track. However, she later finds out that Billy is in bigger trouble than she thought, and begins to distance herself from him.
As Taney tries to build her future, and her friendship with Billy starts to fade into her past, talk of a dangerous individual known as the ‘Stoneybatter Strangler’ starts to zip around the streets of Dublin. Taney finds it harder to keep her talents under wraps as she begins to have visions of the women being targeted by the Strangler, including the most unfortunate of the lot, who dies as a result of his attack. She cannot see his face in her visions, but she is torn between wanting her visions to tell her more (so that she might help to apprehend the Strangler) and less (because the visions frighten her, and she worries that they put her in danger, too). When she has a vision of the Strangler attacking a woman she knows and is fond of, Taney cannot control herself any longer, and rushes to intercept him – thereby coming face to face with her own greatest fear.
I was gripped by ‘Dark Warning’ from the first page to the last – it is very well written, and the voice is engaging and fresh. Taney is a wonderful character, and I particularly loved that the book is told in her first-person perspective, so we learn along with her about her talents and their uses, and about the identity of the fearsome Strangler. I found her to be believable, warm, and realistic, no doubt helped by the setting and my own familiarity with Dublin city, but also because of Ms. Fitzpatrick’s use of language and dialogue to describe her, and bring Taney and her family to life. ‘Dark Warning’ is a historical novel which wears its history lightly, a supernatural novel which doesn’t overdo the paranormal aspects, and primarily a story about a young girl finding her way in the world and learning to come out from under her mother’s shadow. It’s a great book, and I hope you check it out.
Happy Saturday! Get out there and read!