Insightful portrayal of suburban Ireland of 1970s brings author another success
I have a confession. This is the first time that I've read any of the works of Christine Dwyer Hickey. I can't explain why, except to say that I've been meaning to rectify that situation for years, especially since her bestselling novel Tatty was selected as one of the best Irish books of the decade, but somehow other authors seemed more pressing.
The upside of discovering the award-winning Dwyer Hickey at this late stage is that I know she has an outstanding back catalogue in which I can happily immerse myself.
The Lives of Women is Dwyer Hickey's seventh novel and it comes with high expectations. She has twice won the Listowel Writers' Week short-story competition, the aforementioned Tatty was long-listed for the Orange Prize and The Cold Eye of Heaven won Irish Novel of the Year in 2012 and was nominated for the IMPAC Award in 2013. That book's film rights were also recently optioned, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if the same rights are eagerly fought over for The Lives of Women.
It opens as 50-year-old chef Elaine Nichols returns to her small childhood home after a long absence to care for her now wheelchair-bound and ailing father. Her mother has died, and the relationship between father and daughter is chillingly distant.
When Elaine notices that a neighbouring house is being sold, she is immediately transported back to a summer in the 1970s when, as an almost 16-year-old, she became involved in a series of events that ultimately ended in tragedy and her own exile.
Dwyer Hickey effortlessly switches between adult Elaine, who narrates in the first person, and her younger version, whose story is told in the third.
In the 1970s, life in the Irish suburbs was boringly monotonous for women with an emphasis on respectability at all costs. As Elaine observes: "The suburb is not like a ship. It's the opposite to a ship. On a ship, babies and women come first, in the suburbs, they always, always come last."
For Elaine's mother and her contemporaries, the arrival of an American divorcee - the warm and welcoming Serena - and her daughter - the cool, calculating Patty - encourages them to break out of their stultifying lifestyle.
As their mothers become increasingly distracted - fathers in this world seem unknowable figures - Elaine and her close-knit group of friends try to discover their own path to adulthood. But this delicate time in their lives proves pivotal because Elaine's best friend, Agatha, is hiding a dark secret, the revealing of which will lead to the unravelling of the relationships between the group, with worse to come.
Dwyer Hickey proves that she knows just how to slowly build up the levels of suspense and she keeps the reader engaged until the very last chapter, when we finally discover why Elaine was sent into exile in New York.
The novelist is adept at capturing the voice of Elaine, particularly as a teen, in this richly textured, insightful and uncompromising look at life in unforgiving 1970s Ireland. Another triumph for this talented and original writer.
Fiction: The Lives of Women
Christine Dwyer Hickey
Atlantic Books, pbk, 288 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie