‘The Lives of Women’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

The-lives-of-women

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 278 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Christine Dwyer Hickey may possibly be Ireland’s most under-rated writer. She’s written seven novels — I’ve read the oh-so brilliant but heart-breaking Tatty and the inventive award-winning The Cold Eye of Heaven — as well as a short story collection and a (newly published) play.

The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is right up there with my favourite reads of the year so far. It’s the kind of book that hooks you right from the start and then keeps you on tenterhooks throughout. I started reading it on a Sunday morning and then had to make a difficult decision about whether to put it aside to finish my chores and planned errands or to stay indoors and finish it. I chose the latter.

A return from exile

When the book opens we meet Elaine Nicols, a woman in her late 40s, who has returned to her childhood home in suburban Ireland after a long exile in New York. Her mother has recently died — she missed the funeral, deliberately as it turns out — and she needs to make sure her invalid and uncommunicative father and his ageing Alsatian are okay before returning to the States.

One day, while airing the attic, she notices that the house backing on to her father’s has been sold. As its contents begin to pile up in the garden, she keeps “thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago” which continues to haunt her.

The novel then swings backwards and forwards in time, building up a portrait of a dysfunctional family living in a hotbed of other dysfunctional families on a small suburban housing estate where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

There are constant hints that something tragic happened, which resulted in 16-year-old Elaine being “disowned” by her parents and sent away to live on the other side of the Atlantic with next to no family contact. But what we don’t know is what caused such an extreme parental reaction, and it is this extraordinary build up of suspense that makes The Lives of Women such a page-turner.

Mothers and daughters

While it’s essentially a suspense novel, the tension is not created at the expense of detail or humanity. The author peoples it with believable,  intriguing — if somewhat flawed and troubled  — characters.

She is particularly good at depicting the contradictory relationships between teenage girls — the peer pressure, the gossiping, the bitchiness and the overwhelming desire to fit in and be liked. But it is the fraught relationship between Helen and her over-protective mother that she really excels:

She thinks to herself — tomorrow. I will make an effort tomorrow. I will try to be nice to her. The effort I make will be strong enough to break the grip in my stomach and then I’ll be able to breathe again.
In the early hours of the morning she is filled with hope for tomorrow’s effort. And then the next day, the second — the very second — she sets eyes on her mother queasily coming out of the bathroom and padding down the stairs in her big frilly dressing gown, the laundry basket held high in her arms, empty bottles whispering inside it — she hates, hates, hates her, all over again.

There’s no doubt that Dwyer Hickey is a brilliant stylist, effortlessly switching between third person past and first person present, and there’s something extraordinarily pitch-perfect about the mood she evokes — you feel Elaine’s loneliness, her confusion, her terrible need for redemption — and yet it’s not an overwhelmingly dark book: it’s punctuated by moments of joy and humour and there’s a lyricism in the writing that carries the novel into the light.

But don’t take my word for it: Susan Osborne, who blogs at a Life in Books, also loved it — you can read her review here. And you can read more about the author by visiting her official website. Personally, I’d love to see this one on the Man Booker Prize long list, which is announced tomorrow… but I won’t hold my breath.

UPDATE: Well, surprise, surprise, this book didn’t get long listed for the Booker — but here’s hoping it does get listed for Irish Book of the Year later this year. In the meantime, the complete 2015 Man Booker long list is here.

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19 thoughts on “‘The Lives of Women’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

  1. I went to the library with the specific purpose of finding this book (or Tatty) today (well yesterday…just) and was unsuccessful and your review has furthered my belief that I need to read it and the others. I will have to reserve them or get them ordered in. This sounds exactly the kind of thing I love to read.

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    • I think you’d like this, Beth. She’s one of my favourite writers but she really doesn’t get the attention she deserves, especially here in the UK.

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        • Hmmm. I did read it but I have to say I wasn’t overwhelmed by the experience – I couldn’t connect with the main character or her family and friends and found the plot a bit meh. It’s not often that I disagree with you on books so perhaps this just wasn’t the right time for me to read it. I certainly had a fair share of distractions when I was reading so perhaps that didn’t help.

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          • Ah, that’s interesting. I read it back to back with My Buried Life and both books were incredibly similar in topic/theme/style so perhaps I was in the right mood for this. I’m bingeing on Irish fiction right now and remembering why I like it so much, but am also increasingly aware of the same themes coming up again and again. As you say, maybe this just wasn’t the “right” time for you to read it…

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  2. This sounds like my kind of novel! I haven’t heard of Hickey so thanks for bringing her to my attention.

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    • She’s incredibly under-appreciated/unrecognised here in the UK, but much better known in her native Ireland. She has a set of books called The Dublin Trilogy that I really want to read — I’ve had them all sitting here for years and years!

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  3. Put this on my wish list immediately after reading this, BUT it’s included in today’s Kindle daily deals so it became an immediate ie 2 minutes ago, purchase. Thank you.

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    • Apologies for delayed response, but thanks for the tip-off. Hopefully others saw this link and downloaded a copy — it would be cheap at five times the price!

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      • Well, I hope it helped someone. I recognised the cover immediately from your post so I bought a copy for myself. I’ll look forward to reading it.

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  4. Thanks for the link, Kim. I’m pleased the book lived up to expectations for you. I suspect neither of us is surprised that it didn’t make it on to the Booker longlist. I think we have the better taste!

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  5. I have just read and reviewed my first book by Christine Dwyer Hickey – “Tatty” and after reading this I am very keen to give her others a go. This sounds like a must for my To Be Read list

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