The Lives of Women by Christine Dwyer Hickey: An old, old story, and a sad one

Cover imageChristine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure how many readers are acquainted with her quiet, measured prose although the jacket of her latest novel suggests that Last Train from Liguria was a bestseller. I’d like to think that was the case and that The Lives of Women, with its long, slow reveal of a tragedy and the shadow it casts, will meet with similar success. It certainly deserves to.

Elaine has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. Nearly fifty, she’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. One day, up in the attic exploring a leak, she spots workmen in the old Shillman house and is catapulted back to the summer in the ‘70s which triggered her departure. Along with several other families, Elaine lived with her anxious, over protective mother and her silent, aloof father on the small middle-class estate to which she’s returned. A little diffident and recuperating from a virus at the beginning of the summer, Elaine looked forward to gossipy visits from her best friend Agatha. While Elaine was in hospital her lonely mother had become friends with Mrs Shillman, acquiring a drink habit into the bargain. The arrival of Serena and her daughter Patty with their odd American ways added spice to the lives of the estate’s bored housewives. Serena befriended their teenage daughters, overseeing them with a liberal hand. As the summer wore on, the teenagers did what teenagers do while the women drank and socialised. Towards its end a tragedy played out which affected all who had a part in it, Elaine most of all.

Hickey alternates her narrative between the first-person present day and the third-person ‘70s, emphasising the distance Elaine has put between herself and the summer which shaped the rest of her life. Her writing is precise, quiet and unshowy, making it all the more striking: ‘On a ship babies and women always come first, in the suburbs, they always, always come last’ perfectly describes the departure of the men to their important lives leaving the women at home with little to do. Hickey takes her time revealing the summer’s events, leaking small details, occasionally springing larger surprises as if Elaine is circling the facts until she can face them. It’s all beautifully done: when the event itself is reached it’s hardly a surprise but that isn’t the point. The story is an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. She’s well worth your time.

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  1. Never read anything by her ….although this sounds like the sort of thing I would like . Currently on the look out for things to add to TBR once my V Woolf course over !

    • Thank you! I think she’s a fine writer who she doesn’t seem to get the attention she deserves. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I do.

  2. I’ve got Tatty by C D Hockey & remember admiring & likening the cover of this to L Shaped Room & the ’70s vibe when Naomi (@frizbot) posted a pic… Love the premise & promise of revisiting 70s – definitely on my list. Great post 🙂

    • Thank you! Yes, it’s definitely an atmospheric cover. Tatty’s on my list. I think it’s the only one of hers I haven’t yet read.

    • Thanks you, Victoria, and I hope you seek her out. She doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves. Several other people have remarked that they’ve not come across her work yet she knocks spots of many other writers.

  3. I love her work and have read a couple of her books but–as you point out–she gets little fanfare or attention in the UK, which is such a shame. I like to think she’s a big literary star in her native Ireland though. I am certainly looking forward to reading this soonish. Her last novel, The Cold Eye of Heaven, which tells the life of an Irishman backwards, was absolutely brilliant…but I never saw it reviewed on any blogs and my review did not attract a single comment. One of her earlier novels, Tatty, was a superb account of a troubled child that broke my heart…

    • I suspect she’s someone who quietly gets on with it rather than courting publicity. I’ve been pleased at the response on my blog and on Twitter to this post – could be because of the title and a swift re-tweet from Sarah Perry may have helped it along. Whatever the reason, I’d be delighted to have made a few converts. Tatty is the only one of hers I haven’t read but I’ll be correcting that soon

    • Thank you, Cleo. I hope I’ve made one or two converts to Hickey’s writing. She seems so often to be overlooked to me.

  4. I’m glad Victoia told me about your review. I posted mine about a week ago.
    I really loved the writing but I wasn’t so keen on that holding-back-information device. I’m not against that per se but in this case . . .

    ****************Spoiler***************
    She mentioned Agatha all the time, I feel it would have been more honest to allude to her being at the center of the drama. Not sure if you know what I mean.

    ***************************************
    But I want to read more of her. There wasn’t one superfluous word in this book.

    • I’m glad to see that you’ll be reading more Hickey, Caroline, even if we aren’t quite agreed on this one. I think I know what you mean but I felt that the withholding of information allowed us to feel that Elaine was circling around the facts, unable to bring them out into the open until she could face them herself. Absolutely right about not one superfluous word, though. I love that pared-back style of writing.

      • he style is terrific. I’m sure she doesn’t always withhold information like this so I might like another of her novels much more. I’ll watch out for any other Hickey reviews from you.

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