The Lives of Women, by Christine Dwyer Hickey review
A modern valley of squinting windows: rendering the rigidly gender-specific world of the recent past and exploring the frightening gap between generations that is at the heart of the novel’s tragedy
The Lives of Women
Christine Dwyer Hickey
Suburbs developed later in Ireland than in the rest of the First World, and housing estates only became ubiquitous in recent decades. Even so, the stasis of suburban life is an established fictional trope here. A strong cadre of writers, and in particular women, have made this world their domain in both prose and verse, among them Eavan Boland, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Ann Enright and Vona Groarke.
In an interview, Christine Dwyer Hickey said the title of her recent suburban novel came from a line in a Mad Men episode mouthed by an uncomprehending male character in 1950’s America. This was a time when suburban ennui was new. The gulf between men’s and women’s lives widened as the men connected daily with city life, leaving behind wives and children in supposedly utopian circumstances – all mod cons, manicured lawns and desirable schools.
Enforced exileThe author acknowledges that the tenor of the book is autobiographical, and she has form with this quasi-biographical format. Tatty, described by Joseph O’Connor as “part novel, part memoir”, is situated, like Hugh Hamilton’s The Speckled People, somewhere between the two genres and explores new territory in fiction. The Lives of Women does not operate in exactly the same sphere, remaining more a conventional novel – and it is the better for it.
In a posh suburb in south Dublin where the narrator’s father was a judge and the neighbouring dads were architects and other “genuine” professionals, 50-year-old Elaine Nichols has returned after years of enforced exile in New York. Elaine is ostensibly back to care for the elderly widowed judge, although she doesn’t care much for him, nor does she do much caring.
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Slowly, very slowly, the story of Elaine’s banishment from this Happy Valley is revealed, beginning as she looks out from an upstairs window into the neighbours’ garden and remembers the people who lived there during her childhood. (The drip-feed of information even keeps us ignorant of the narrator’s profession for more than 150 pages, although we are then provided with a welter of related detail.)
Thus the book’s genre is hard to pin down. It is cast in two periods more than 30 years apart, and reads like a closely observed novel of manners – then and now. But since Dwyer Hickey has the propensity to withhold much from the reader and the sinister is never far from the surface of her prose, The Lives of Women reads at times like a suburban gothic and at others could be mistaken for a straight-up murder mystery.
Everything is hidden in this world; dark implications abound. The darkest of these concern Elaine’s best friend, Agatha Hanley, who is blind. A neglected child, passed from family members to neighbours, Agatha is a memorable character. Dwyer Hickey handles adroitly the task of creating a child character with a handicap (as it would have been called at the time) who is not particularly pleasant, and whose sharp observational skills are no less keen for her being sightless.
One of the earliest glimpses of Elaine occurs in flashback as she is struck down by a debilitating illness that keeps her hospitalised and later bedridden for months. Invalided and bored, she grows increasingly at odds with her mother. Sarah Nichols has become something of a celebrity in the neighbourhood because of her child’s misfortune, and is luxuriating in the female friendships she has acquired in Elaine’s absence.
This stultifying situation would perhaps have continued indefinitely had the world of these women not been shaken up by the arrival of a mother-daughter pair from New York. Newcomers, Serena and Patty, have the effrontery to share cigarettes in public, and exhibit déclassé behaviour, bringing chairs onto the front step and exposing their sun-tanned midriffs to passers-by.
More threatening still is their willingness to expose stifling conventions to some stiff winds of change. But does the fresh air do everyone good in the end?
Dwyer Hickey details conventional behaviour with an eye for the relentlessly mundane, but her tone stops short of mockery. This is the way that life was led, vol-au-vent cases and all, and these lives retain a validity that is essential to carry the story through to its far from mundane conclusion.
To this effect the writer provides early indications of irregularities past and present. In a neighbouring wood there is a shrine to a tinker who met with a violent end decades earlier. Scraps of foil near the remains of bonfires indicate the presence of local addicts who are the current menace.
The Lives of Women not only renders the rigidly gender-specific world of the recent past, but explores the frightening gap between generations that is at the heart of the novel’s tragedy. Elaine and her friends don’t seem to have a decent parent among them. If the members of the older generation aren’t on the booze, like Elaine’s mother and the prominent Mrs Shillman, then they beat their wives and children, like Mr Donegan down the road; ignore their families, like Judge Nichols; or leave, like Agatha’s gadfly mother.
Candid perspectiveYet a degree of balance is achieved when the book then brings the reader up to the period when the younger generation has become middle- aged. Then we can observe ruefully that the next generation doesn’t look like it’s winning any prizes, either.
Nearly a century ago, Brinsley McNamara’s The Valley of the Squinting Windows gave us a candid perspective on small-mindedness and the potential for harm behind the twitching lace curtains of rural Irish towns. Christine Dwyer Hickey has taken up McNamara’s mantel, shifting the action from Main Street to the cul-de-sac, to show that in the intervening generations not much has changed. The corrosive power of gossip, the strangulation of bad marriages and the emotional neglect of children who are otherwise well provided for – all these retain their power to blight lives. The Lives of Women deals honestly with these markers of malaise without ever despairing of the resilience of the human heart.
Christina Hunt Mahony is a research fellow in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin. She is writing on Irish literary autobiography