Review: Hellfire by Mia Gallagher

Powerful story of hope and heroin
Published Sunday, September 10, 2006 – Reviewed by Alex Meehan
Hellfire, by Mia Gallagher, Penguin Ireland, €19.10.

As any writer knows, the problem with writing about inner city heroin addicts is that it’s hard to make a lying, thieving, violent scumbag your main character and still ask your reader to like them and care what happens to them.

The thing is though, smack addicts are real people with hopes and dreams and aspirations, and in Mia Gallagher’s Hellfire, the lead character shows how good people can come to do bad things.

Much of Hellfire is concerned with how an innocent 15-year-old girl messes her life up with drugs, how she is influenced by those around her and how she sets out to take revenge on those who led her down the path she is now on.

The book takes its name from the infamous Hellfire Club, the hunting lodge in the Dublin Mountains behind Rathfarnham which was reputedly the site of satanic rituals and 17th-century debauchery presided over by the infamous Buck Whaley.

In Gallagher’s debut novel, the Hellfire Club is also the name of a teenage gang, a group of kids from Dublin’s north inner city obsessed with drugs and the occult in late 1980s Ireland.

At the centre of the group is Lucy Dolan, a streetwise teenager with a talent for reading tarot cards. For most of the book, Lucy is 15 years old and living with her dysfunctional family, which has been shattered by drugs, poverty and marital break-up.

She lives with her aging fortune teller granny and her street trader Mam, but the Dolan house is not a happy home – Lucy’s brother Micko is a heroin addict while her dad, the once dapper mod, Jimmy Marconi, is no longer on the scene.

The story starts in 2003. The adult Lucy has just been released from jail and is trying to make sense of her troubled life and the need she feels to confront her nemesis, Naylor, the two-bit gangster who introduced her to heroin.

Over the course of the story we see her degenerate into drug-fuelled desperation and insanity, before she comes out the other side, haunted by her memories of a night spent at the Hellfire Club.

A first person narrative delivered by Lucy to Naylor, Hellfire is written entirely in a Dublin dialect that takes some getting used to. Few books are written in this manner and with good reason: first person narratives restrict the writer enormously in that they can describe only what their lead character experiences or remembers.

This makes it hard to describe the world the story is taking place in and, as a result, first person novels can feel shallow and unfulfilling.

However, Hellfire is the exception that proves the rule and the first person narrative works well. It emphasises the restricted viewpoint of a character that lives in a small world, that of Dublin’s north inner city. Lucy has trouble relating to the potential for normality that exists beyond it.

Overall, this is a remarkable debut novel. The writing is lively and lyrical, the story exciting and startlingly original and the characters well drawn and engaging.

Hellfire is a dark book, but reading it is not a dark experience. The main character is a teenager with all the optimism that goes with early adulthood. Lucy is streetwise but naive, brave but afraid, all at the same time.

Her world is an invigorating place in which to spend time, but her descent into heroin addiction and psychosis is all the more upsetting because, by that stage of the book, we know Lucy well and believe bad things shouldn’t happen to girls like this.

The hell of the addict’s existence is rendered normal through Lucy’s eyes and it is horrible to witness. That we care so much speaks highly of a character drawn well with a believable narrative. This book could have been about the ugliness of heroin but instead it’s about the beauty of hope.

The only minor criticism that needs to be levelled at Hellfire regards its pacing: this is a whopper of a book, even more so when you consider it is a first effort. It clocks in at 660 pages but the first 150 could easily have been cut to make for a more energetic read.

This first section of the book deals with Lucy’s early childhood, her family and her relationship with her influential grandmother and absent father. It is beautifully written and a great introduction to the world in which the novel takes place but not a huge amount happens that is relevant to the story itself. However, when the story really gets going, it’s a page-turner.

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