Christine Dwyer Hickey is an Irish novelist and short story writer, who has been awarded many prizes for her work. Her bestselling novel Tatty was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade, long listed for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Last Train from Liguria, was nominated for the Prix L’Européen de Littérature. Her novel The Cold Eye of Heaven won Irish Novel of the Year 2012 and was nominated for the IMPAC 2013 award.
The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is set in an Irish suburb. There are two timelines, one set in the 70s, the other thirty years later, in contemporary Ireland. The chapters set in the present are written in first person. The chapters set in the 70s, in the third. Since both strands are told by Elaine, it felt a bit weird at first, but after a few chapters it made perfect sense. It’s like the person she was in the past was someone else entirely.
I found it interesting that from the first pages on, I felt that Christine Dwyer Hickey was also a short story writer. The prose is so lean, every bit of fluff has been cut. Almost minimalist. I liked that very much and feel like picking up another of her novels. Unfortunately though, this book didn’t quite work for me because she uses a device we know from genre novels – withholding information – and in this case it felt gimmicky.
Elaine returns to Ireland from New York after a thirty year absence. Her mother has died and her father’s caretaker is absent, so she feels, she should come and help him. Early in the novel we’re told that she left Ireland at the age of 16 because of some traumatic event. We’re not told what it was until the final pages. While this technique made the novel suspenseful, I thought it diminished its power.
Apart from this clumsy structure the book has many strengths. Dwyer Hickey captures the claustrophobic feeling of an Irish suburb in the 70s. The women are at home, bored to death, the men just distant shadows. many of the women drink or pop pills. Elaine’s relationship with her mother is very unhealthy. They sleep in the same bed until Elaine is nine and only because a school friend tells other kids about it, does that change. Later, Elaine contracts a near fatal illness, which gives her mother the excuse to smother her. She may not be as extreme but she reminded me quite often of Jeanette Winterson’s mother.
When an American divorcee, Serena, and her daughter, Patty, move into the neighbourhood, tensions rise. We know from the beginning that this divorcee takes Elaine with her when she returns to New York after the tragedy has happened. The way Dwyer Hickey describes the culture clash is so well done. And when reading it and comparing the kind, free-spirited Serena with the frustrated, crazy housewives around her, we start to understand that Elaine might not only be traumatized by what happened but by her upbringing, the stifling atmosphere, the double standards and highly dysfunctional relationships, in which sex is everywhere but too tabu to be spoken about.
Unfortunately this withholding of information, the slow build-up to the final incident, made that incident much less tragic than it really was. And it also overshadowed one of the underlying themes, which I found extremely interesting and well-done. Elaine reinvents herself more than once in this book. She sheds identities like clothes. I liked the idea of a person being able to become someone else, to draw on hidden selves and bring them to light.
This isn’t the glowing review I would have liked to write, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad I read it. If only because it introduced me to an author whose style really appealed to me.
Here’s a small sample of her writing, from the beginning of the novel:
I come down here to try to cure or maybe kill something, in a hair of the dog sort of way, but all I ever do is remember. Days of brooding then follow. Brooding on the past, on the horror of being young: on all the stupidity and ignorance and misplaced loyalty that goes with the territory. Then I start with the thinking. I think about what it was like to be living here at the time. I think about Karl and Paul, about Patty and Serena. About Jonathan. I think about all the others. About my mother and the other mothers. About my father and the other fathers and non-fathers alike. About the unimportance of children and the importance of men. I think about the lives of women.
I want to pick up Tatty next. Has anyone read Christine Dwyer Hickey’s books?