Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Dancers Dancing, first published in 1999, is one of the best, most evocative, and most understated novels about a young girl’s coming-of-age that I have read. It is set in the summer of 1972, when thirteen-year-old Orla, the child of an English mother and a Dublin father, is sent off to the Irish-speaking ‘Gaeltacht’ in Donegal. That time, in Ireland, is the time of a short-lived IRA truce. The book was written, as Ní Dhuibhne points out in her own afterword to my 2007 Blackstaff Press edition of the novel, at the time of another, more significant ceasefire: that of 1997, which eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement and the cessation of the Northern Ireland conflict. And yet The Dancers Dancing wears this heavy historical mantle incredibly lightly. The politics are constantly there, woven into the very fabric of the thing, but they are not the point of it. Life goes on – as life always does go on – despite and in defiance of the Troubles, both at the same time. The children gaze “eagerly” at the soldier who checks their bus at the border. “They stare happily at his helmet, his gun, his green-and-brown Action Men clothes. ‘Come down the aisle,’ Orla prays. ‘Please!’” They sulk when the driver won’t stop in the North, where everyone knows the best selections of sweets are to be bought.
When they arrive in Donegal and meet their homestay hosts Ní Dhuibhne describes, more vividly than anything else I’ve read, the feelings of homesickness and the sensation of the unheimlich. Reading it, I was instantly twelve again myself, and in the house of my German penpal, where everything was strange and different and yet their home, just as much a home as my home was to me. Those first feelings of dislocation, the realisation of the myriad other lives people live, are intensely powerful, and Ní Dhuibhne captures them delicately and perfectly. Orla is shy of the family with whom she is billeted, and shy too of the Derry girls – the first Northern girls she’s met, who “sound so knowing always, sophisticated and witty, with their tuneful accents and quick turns of phrase, with their sharp, northern vocabulary”. She begins to compare her life in Dublin – a father involved in the workers’ strike, a mother who’s having to take in lodgers to make ends meet – with the lives of the girls in Donegal, and with those from Derry: to think outside the limits of her own childhood and her own experience.
Because it’s not just Irish, of course, that Orla learns over the course of the summer. She gets her first boyfriend, with whom she dances the compulsory Irish sets. They do not exchange a single word, “apart from the formulaic greeting and response, during all the time they dance together. And there is nothing sexual or sentimental in their relationship. Orla does not give him a second’s thought when she is not with him.” She has her first period, smokes her first cigarette. As the summer nears its end, she grows close to one of the local boys and has an intimation of what it might mean to fall in love. “When Orla looks at his face something happens to her whole body, something that has never happened before. It’s as if she were going under ether, in the dentist’s chair. It’s as if she were going underwater, under glaucous, clear water. She cannot take her eyes away. And neither can he.”
Laced through Orla’s own personal experiences is a sense of the life of the town. She encounters elderly siblings who live together, a “brother-and-sister arrangement, common maybe in these parts of Ireland in the past, an economy of incest, though probably not real incest.” She discovers, down by the burn, the tiny buried skulls of illegitimate babies, killed years before at birth. Miles away, four girls from another school drown after swimming out too far.
Nothing, and everything, happens to Orla this summer. Once it’s over and she’s back in Dublin, she will be changed forever, grown-up. It’s poised, precise and utterly unsentimental. There are no pyrotechnics in this novel, just a skilful summoning of a place, and a past, and a sense of what it feels like and means to be on, and leave, the cusp of childhood.