Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lives of Women’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey


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.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cold Eye of Heaven’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey


Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 368 pages; 2011.

Last month I stated that I was going to read all the books shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. Christine Dwyer Hickey‘s The Cold Eye of Heaven, published last year, is one of the shortlisted titles.

A life told backwards

The book opens on 15 January 2010. Farley, an elderly gent who lives alone, has collapsed on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, “one side of his face shoved into the linoleum, right shoulder pressed into the radiator”. As he lays there, trying to figure out how he got there and how he might be rescued, his mind starts wandering back to earlier times.

We are then transported back to the previous day in which Farley traverses Dublin on various errands — taking his suit to the drycleaners, getting one of his shoes resoled, trying to find a priest to sign a mass card — all in preparation for the funeral of an old colleague, Slowey, with whom he had become estranged.

From then on, the book tells Farley’s life story in reverse chronological order — in 10-year increments — right back to his early childhood in 1940. Along the way we find out about his relationship with Slowey — the pair were in business together as law clerks, but they were also related by marriage  — and discover how things fell apart between them.

We learn about his marriage to Martina, a raven-haired beauty, who died from cancer very young, and how he never quite recovered from her death. And we learn of an adulterous relationship he began some time afterwards that created terrible repercussions from which he could never quite escape. There is also a heartbreaking chapter in which he must look after his senile mother, who often mistakes him for her lover.

An extraordinary portrait of an ordinary man

What emerges is a very human portrait of a complex individual leading an ordinary life, often in extraordinary times. As well as being a lovely, poignant and often humorous tale of one man’s life, it is also a brilliant portrait of Dublin through the ages — before and after the Celtic Tiger. The second chapter is especially evocative of the streets and pubs and churches, and in Farley’s attempt to attend a funeral, there’s a very strong nod to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Indeed, this particularly chapter — by far the strongest in the entire novel — is laugh-out loud funny in places, as we get glimpses of Farley’s inner-most feelings, often about ageing, that are deliciously wicked and acerbic. (For example, he would “prefer to eat his own vomit” than get meals on wheels; he wonders if it is worth going up to the alter during Slowey’s funeral because “it’s not as if he’s believed in that fucking eejit for more than forty years”.)

Dwyer Hickey is particularly good at detail — an elderly Farley making his way gingerly across a snowy garden path is like “a half-pissed tightrope walker”, a neighbour has a “face bulged from the cold and there’s a jellied, goitred look about her eyes”, a stationary bus is “farting out a long bloom of fumes” — and she deftly balances a full gamut of emotions — sadness, grief, disappointment, joy and happiness — so that nothing feels cloying or tacked on.

My only quibble is that the younger Farley is far less interesting (and wicked) than the older version, so as the book gets closer to the end (and Farley’s beginning) the narrative runs a little out of steam.

But in exploring the full arc of one man’s life from grave to cradle, Dwyer Hickey is able to explore many themes, in particular what it is to get old, but also how love, betrayal and heartbreak can shape one’s outlook. Her acute insights into the inner-most workings of the human heart, mind and soul make The Cold Eye of Heaven a rich, warm and humane novel.

10 books, Book lists

10 books that are harrowing

10-booksWe’ve all been there. Read a book and wept buckets over it. Or emerged from the story feeling completely shattered, as if the world has slightly tilted on its axis and we’re left standing on shaky ground.

I love reading books that make me think, that take me out of my comfortable existence and leave a lasting impression. Harrowing books, ones that are slightly distressing to read for one reason or another — maybe because the characters do terrible things, lead  distressing lives or are confronted by extraordinarily heartbreaking circumstances — reveal the power of literature to move, transform and educate us in ways we may never have expected when we first cracked open the pages.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I truly love books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that leave me feeling slightly devastated when I get to the last page. As we all know, reading is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes it’s nice to have almost tangible evidence of the journeys we’ve experienced in our mind’s eye.

While I realise not everyone likes a harrowing read, sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. If you want some help deciding what might be worth a try, here’s my top 10 harrowing books (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

There’s nothing like a war novel to take the reader out of their comfort zone and into an almost unimaginable world of death, horror and destruction. A Long, Long Way, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, is an unbearably sad read about an Irish soldier caught between two wars: the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. I read most of the book with a lump in my throat. But while the scenes on the battlefield are stomach-churningingly gruesome and harrowing, this is a beautifully written book that is also deeply moving.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Like A Long, Long Way, this is another book set during the Great War, but this one is told from a German perspective. The brilliance of this book is that it does not romanticise war in any way. It shows in clear, concise language what trench warfare was really like, and how young, innocent and patriotic young men became transformed by their experiences — and not necessarily for the better. Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the utter futility and pointlessness of war. I came away from this book feeling completely bereft, distressed by the knowledge that we don’t seem to have learnt a thing. Who says history does not repeat?

‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (not reviewed on blog)

This is the true story of Belfast-born Brian Keenan’s capture by Shi’ite militiamen when he was a teacher in Beirut in the 1980s. He was kept hostage for four-and-a-half years. I read the book not long after publication, back in 1991, and I remember it having a strong, long-lasting impact on me. How one man could survive such brutal treatment for so long without going completely insane was simply beyond my comprehension.

‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny (not reviewed on blog)

This non-fiction book is probably the most profound true story I have ever read. It changed my entire outlook on child criminals, how they should be treated and who should be held responsible. It looks at the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who was convicted of the manslaughter of two young boys (aged 4 and 3) in 1968. Sereny, an amazingly talented journalist who has devoted most of her life to exploring the reasons why people do bad, immoral things, interviews Mary as an adult about her experiences. It is a deeply chilling, life-changing read. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for every parent, teacher and social worker.

‘Due Preparations for the Plague’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Anyone who has a fear of flying should probably not read this novel by Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion. It certainly fed my paranoia for awhile there, and to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (not reviewed on blog)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers. Reading groups must have a field day with this one!

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (not reviewed on blog)

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I saw the movie and thought it was impressive, but it was nowhere near as harrowing as the book. As much as I admire McCabe, I don’t think he’s ever written anything to surpass the remarkable brilliance and dark, disturbing nature of novel which provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern

I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it almost 18 months later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Anyone would think the Irish have a monopoly on rotten childhoods — The Butcher Boy (see above), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down come to mind — but this one  is the first I’ve read from a female perspective. The narrator is a little girl called Tatty, who is caught in the middle of an unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father and her depressed, alcoholic mother. Yes, not exactly happy reading. But I loved this book and felt completely bereft when it ended, almost as if Tatty was a real person whom I was desperate to protect…

‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig (not reviewed on blog)

This is a real blast from the past. I read this book when I was 10. My dad brought it for me and I still remember him explaining it was a true story about one girl’s life during the Second World War. It was the true story aspect that got to me. I had recently read Anne Frank, so I guess this was a natural progression, given it’s about 10-year-old Esther Rudomin, who was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 with her mother and grandmother. They were shipped by cattle car to a forced-labour camp in Siberia, hence the book’s title. Sounds harrowing for a kid to read, but it taught me a lot about the Holocaust, a subject that has fascinated, enthralled and appalled me ever since.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend as a harrowing read?

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2006

Books-of-the-yearA year’s worth of novels. How do I choose which ones make my Top 10 list?

I read so many interesting books this year. I didn’t have any specific reading goals other than to read more foreign novels (that is, books in translation) and more books from my homeland (Australia). I did well on both fronts, reading some 15 books in translation and 12 Australian novels.

Most of my reads were modern fiction (released in the past five years) with a handful of classics thrown in and a helluva lot of Irish stuff. All up I read 82 books, a fine increase on last year’s 30-odd total.

My favourite read for 2006 was, without question, the extremely profound Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I found the book so incredibly thoughtful, weighty and sagacious that I could not bring myself to review it.

My top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title) is as follows — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (German)

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee (American)

3. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (Irish)

4. Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers (English)

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (English)

6. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones (Australian)

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)

8. Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason (Icelandic)

9. Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Irish)

10. The Sea by John Banville (Irish)

And an extra one thrown in for good measure:

The Barracks by John McGahern (Irish)

What books did you fall in love with this year?

Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2006.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s Tatty has to be one of the most entertaining, if somewhat harrowing, books I have read about childhood in a long time and I quickly devoured it in the space of 24 hours.

Reminiscent of Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it tells the story of a young girl growing up in Dublin, spanning the years 1964 to 1974.

Tatty, who acquired her name as an abbreviation of “tell-tale-tattler”, is a lonely little girl who makes up stories to gain attention. But because she is the apple of her father’s eye, this “alliance” incurs the wrath of her quick-tempered and cruel mother.

Narrated by Tatty, we get shocking but brutally honest glimpses of the unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father, who lives to bet on the horses, and her unhappy mother, who is suffering (undiagnosed) depression and drowning her sorrows in booze.

Caught in the middle of this maelstrom are Tatty and her five siblings, the oldest of which is mentally handicapped. When Tatty escapes to boarding school, it seems like she may be protected from the fallout of her family’s disintegration, but if anything, it just makes the differences between her safe, secure life at school and the confused, disturbed one at home all that more apparent — and difficult to deal with.

The beauty of this story is Dwyer Hickey’s ability to get inside the head of a little girl. Tatty’s voice is so real, so authentic you feel as if she is a living, breathing being that you long to protect.

The writing deftly treads a fine line between tragedy and comedy. It’s by no means sappy or sentimental, but it is incredibly moving and, at times, tear-inducing.

I loved this book so much that when I came to the last page I felt totally bereft, not because the ending was unexpected (it wasn’t), but because I had grown to know Tatty so well I feared for her future and didn’t want to leave her behind.