Christine Dwyer Hickey: The Lives of Women (2015)

The Lives of Women

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?

 

18 thoughts on “Christine Dwyer Hickey: The Lives of Women (2015)

  1. Too bad that the structural problems got in the way.

    The idea of people reinventing themselves is fascinating. It is one of the reasons that the Great Gatsby is such an interesting book for me.

    • I’m pretty sure a lot of people wouldn’t mind the structure but I felt it didn’t work in this case. It was written like a literary novel but the strcuture was very genre.
      I hadn’t thought of The Great Gatsby but, of course, that’s part of what makes it great.

  2. Nice review, Caroline. Glad to know that you liked the book, though you found the surprise part a bit unsatisfying. I have encountered this kind of thing – secrets revealed in the end or surprises in the end, which spoil the quality of the novel. I remember John Banville’s ‘The Sea’ had a secret revealed in the end and Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ had a major twist in the end which nearly ruined the book for me (I forgave Barbery, because the rest of the book was fantastic). So, I am really glad to know that you still liked the book. Hope you enjoy your next Christine Dwyer Hickey book. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Happy reading!

    • Thanks, Vishy and thanks for the warning about the Barbery book which I haven’t read yet. I’ll keep it in mind and so I might not be as disappointed. I also haven’t read The Sea yet, so I have to keep that in mind as well.
      Do you feel it didn’t work, in both cases, because they were literary but the technique is rather genre? Or because of the nature of the secret that was revealed?

  3. I was about to ask if it was worth waiting until the end to find out the great mystery. Normally I wouldn’t mind – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes employs a similar tactic, which worked (I was shocked by the revelation), but in this case I’m not convinced. It feels like a gloomy sort of novel. Not sure it would be for me. I’m having trouble getting through Orwell’s essays at the moment…

    • It’s not that gloomy but the suspense wasn’t done well. It’s hard to describe why it didn’t work. She’s a very literary writer and this felt like she tried to apply a genre device but didn’t do it so well.
      I haven’t read The Sense of an Ending yet but I will. I’m curious to see how I’ll feel about that ending and then let you know how it compares.

  4. I read a review of this over at Susan’s site, A Life in Books. She loved it unreservedly, so it’s very interesting to have your thougths to compare. I’m not keen on the big climactic reveal, either. It’s very hard to pull off and can seem clumsy. I’m still intrigued to read this, though, as it sounds like the writing is very good.

    • I’m going to look for that review. I’d be so interested to know what you think. I’ll try another of her books because the writing really was great.

  5. The writing sounds good, but that technique where the author purposely holds something back for the sake of a reveal is one I tend to find clumsy and irritating, so not for me. Big reveals generally I think are a fairly uninteresting technique, it works in Sense of an Ending because so much of that is the narrator reinterpreting what he knows, and besides we can never entirely trust his conclusions.

  6. I came across her novel Last Train from Liguria at some point, but I never managed to ever pick up one of her books–I think I just haven’t read any other reviews of her books until this one. I like the sound of this novel but it is too bad it comes off a little gimmicky. Will you try something else by her? I will have to see if there is anything by her locally.

    • I will read more of her. She’s a fantastic writer and it wouldn’t have needed a lot ot turn this into a perfect novel but I think the twist was too manipulative.
      I’m sure you’ll like her. You can really sense she writes short stories because she makes every word count.

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