Tennis Lessons, by Susannah Dickey

Clare Bogen

Tennis Lessons opens when you are three years old. Yes, you. We never find out your name, and we’re a bit hazy on what you look like, other than that you think you aren’t much to look at. Your self-esteem is low, and you think your body is disgusting. We don’t end up finding out that much about you, even though we are given access to so much, right down to your ingrown toenail. Even through this unusual narrative, we see ourselves in the heroine. She sees herself as a fuck-up who cannot have ‘normal’ friendships and whose parents’ marriage is falling apart literally in front of her eyes. But to me, well, she felt a lot like me. 

Tennis Lessons is an incredibly relatable, poignant portrait of young womanhood. We follow the narrator – ‘you’ – from her childhood until her twenties, catching snippets every few months. Sometimes these snippets are banal, sometimes gross, and sometimes reflections of greater trauma. They are all formative to who ‘you’ are, and who you will become. From the bullying words from a classmate to difficult sex with men who ‘huff like badgers’, the reader is squeezed like toothpaste through the heroine’s late teen years and early twenties. 

I found Tennis Lessons impossible to put down. It was a respite when we first went into lockdown and I couldn’t feel absorbed in many books or television shows. The snippets all build to a greater narrative about something bigger than a young woman’s mediocre life. We don’t need to see everything from her life to know what her life is about.

I was most struck by the depiction of care throughout the novel, which stood out against the thorns and the dinginess and the grotesque mundanity of the heroine’s reality.  The way in which the narrator cares and is cared for by her mother. And especially the care between her and her best friend Rachael. The reader is treated to a beautiful intimacy between two young women, one of whom, despite being ‘you’, we know so little about. In one particularly memorable scene, the heroine joins Rachael in the bathtub where they talk about a former classmate’s wedding and Rachael’s own disappointing relationship with a man. 

And even throughout the heartbreak of growing up, of seeing parents as flawed human beings for the first time, of being bullied and then befriending the bully, the disgusting ingrown toenail (it is a constant), the heroine is incredibly charming. There is so much to laugh about in her not-very-good life. One particular scene that made me laugh out loud happens when Rachael and the heroine end up at a classmate’s engagement drinks in which they end up in an argument with two devout Christian men about the recent abortion law change in Ireland which culminates in the heroine whispering, ‘I love killing babies,’ and winking. Her dark humour is a constant throughout, and in this moment, you see why Rachael and her friendship is so strong. Even while Rachael is mortified, the heroine is playing these men for Rachael’s amusement. There is care in her every action, even her most subversive, and in many ways that is what Tennis Lessons is about.

Clare Bogen is the founding editor of 3 of Cups Press and works as the publicist at Fitzcarraldo Editions. She tweets too much @clarebot.