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.