Christine 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.