Chrissie is in no hurry to collect the papers and head home, because she is in trouble. She has sold something that doesn't belong to her, to buy a treat for Kevin when she visits him at school. And even worse, what she has taken belongs to the convent that gives her family and many others a hot "Penny Dinner" every day, making sure they have enough to eat. Sister Martha, who oversees the kitchen where the food is cooked and distributed, lent Chrissie a nice little tin, to carry the daily stew home. But after her brother Lar, addicted to gambling, took the money she had saved, Chrissie is desperate to bring Kevin the cake roll she promised.
We follow Chrissie as she moves through her evening round, sick with the guilt and shame of her theft. We meet her customers and learn something of their lives, and we also learn more about Chrissie and her family, as well as their neighbors on the "wrong" side of the street. I was worried about where Chrissie's story might take her - not realizing that there are several different stories winding through hers. Her story comes to an end, one that I think is a happy one, but several of theirs are left open, unresolved, and I have been thinking about how they might turn out.
At first this story seemed very far from the small town of Ballyderrig, the setting of her best-known book Never No More (and a later book, Touched by the Thorn). Laverty puts her readers right in the middle of the poverty, the dirt, the smells of the Liffey Lane tenements. Food and decent clothing are scarce, and illness common particularly among the children. But there is also kindness and decency, neighbors looking out for each other, a community very different from that of the small Irish town, but still bound together. But this community is being scattered as the tenements are torn down, forcing the residents to find other homes. Chrissie moves through this world, and the more privileged one on the "right" side of the street, centered in her love for Kevin, whom she helped raise from a baby, and in her simple faith. She also has a true friend in Sister Martha, who makes time to listen and to help when she can.
I thought there was also a familiar Laverty touch in the chapter where one of Chrissie's customers makes an apple tart, with all of the loving attention to the details of Gran in Never No More. (I need to look for a copy of Laverty's iconic book on Irish cooking.) Another of Chrissie's customers is a writer, struggling with a story that compels him. I wondered if he was speaking for his author, when he thought about his work.
He continued to write, refusing to interrupt the rare lovely harmony which existed between his pen and his vision, fearing to move lest the harmony should shatter in discord. He was too appreciative of what had been given to him this evening to take any risk of spoiling it. Such harmony came so seldom. But when it came, how generously it made up for everything! One hour of it, and he forgot the torture of all those arid days when he sat dry-souled and futile and thwarted, deserted by the vision, sickened by the tastelessness of the words that came to him. One hour like this, and he recanted all the bitter protests his heart had ever uttered against the slavery into which a man delivered himself when he obeyed the urge to create.This was Maura Laverty's last novel. I wonder if the vision deserted her. I hope not - I wish there were more of her books to discover. But I'm grateful for the four that she did write. I know I'll be reading and re-reading them many times in the years to come.