Almost exactly two years ago I reviewed Susannah Dickey’s debut, Tennis Lessons, which championed the value of friendship through two young women, one painfully awkward saved by the other. I enjoyed it very much so was eager to read Common Decency which picks up some of her first novel’s themes through the story of Lily, who has sealed herself off after the death of her mother, and Siobhán, locked into an affair with a married man, who lives above Lily in the same apartment block.
To ascribe undue weight to an interaction is so much more shameful than to have forgotten the interaction, she realized. Forgetfulness is the luxury of a rich existence.
Lily and her mother were extraordinarily close, a relationship fuelled by snappy repartee and a constant exchange of arcane knowledge, leaving no room for anyone else in her life. She’s a determined underachiever, losing touch with her best friend and shrugging of attempts at renewing contact after Ellen left for university. When her mother died, she moved into Benson Towers occupying the flan beneath Siobhán who she hoped might open the door to some sort of friendship. Preoccupied with her affair, perpetually checking her phone for messages, Siobhán has little mental space for making friends, saving her energies for Andrew and her job teaching ten-year-olds. When Siobhán rebuffs Lily’s tentative advances a third time, Lily’s feelings turn to rancour. Invited to the flat of a fellow neighbour, Lily learns that Caz has a key to Siobhán’s flat and somehow gets her hands on it. She fits her snooping around Siobhán’s schedule, at first satisfying her curiosity then making little changes. Unsettled by apparent lapses in memory, mislaid bits and pieces and increasing frazzled by her affair, Siobhán begins to unravel.
She was losing her grip on any notion she’d ever had of her core personality, but it was worth it, she thought, to feel like somebody he could love.
Dickey alternates her narrative between Lily and Siobhán as she explores the very different emotional dysfunction of these two women. Anecdotes and memories reveal Lily’s relationship with her mother and her disabling grief while bright, sociable and competent Siobhán is slowly being drained of what little self-esteem she had, checking her phone obsessively and carefully censoring her replies to Andrew’s messages. There’s a wry wit running through the novel, often caustic and sometimes dark. Lily’s snarky exchanges with her mother are particularly enjoyable as is Siobhán’s inner monologue which occasionally spills out of her mouth. Pleasingly taut and full of sharp observation, it ends on a note of hope if not for everyone. There’s always a niggle of worry around second novels but, if anything, I enjoyed Common Decency more than Dickey’s debut. Yet another excellent Irish woman writer to add to my 2022 collection.
Doubleday: London 9780857526885 230 pages Hardback