The Lives of Women: ‘In a way, I was always going to write this novel’
I think it’s fair to say that The Lives of Women is not just a novel set in the suburbs, it is a novel of the suburbs, writes Christine Dwyer Hickey
Reviewers have located it in all sorts of places, from Middle America to Kent, to a small Irish village in the midlands – and this is a good thing. I want it to be a universal story. Photograph: Getty Images
The Lives of Women. I see it as a novel about loneliness, in particular the different types of female loneliness. The loneliness of women caught behind the respectable façade of a 1970s suburb – the sort of women who were my role models when I was growing up. And a newer type of loneliness – that of the successful, single, middle-aged woman who has never had children.
And of course, there’s a story to hold the weight of all that and that story belongs to Elaine Nichols. The novel is told from her perspective through two different narrative stands: as a 49-year-old during Winter Present and again at 16 years of age, during Summer Past. Two significant ages in the lives of women.
We meet her first in her older version when, following the death of her mother, she has returned to her childhood home after a long exile spent in New York. One evening at dusk, she happens to look out the attic window to see the house backing onto hers has been sold. As she watches the old furniture being hauled out onto the lawn, her past begins to crack open.
As both strands of the story intertwine and tighten we gradually learn of the circumstances leading to Elaine’s exile and the tragedy that has marked the rest of her life. In this sense it is also a novel about memory with all its attendant shifts and trickery.
In a way, I was always going to write this novel. I was brought up in a small suburb and I live in one now. I know the suburbs; I know what it is to feel isolated within them, and even occasionally stultified by them.
When I was a child, I would often climb out on the roof and look down into the back gardens of our neighbours, study the clothes hanging on their lines, listen to their voices carry through walls or over back gardens on summer evenings. I would hear their occasional rows. I knew the sort of underwear they wore and even knew some of their secrets, and yet barring a handful of exceptions, I had never been inside their houses. Even so, I knew that despite the uniform appearance, each carefully contained house held its own little tragedy behind its own front door.
And so I think it’s fair to say that The Lives of Women is not just a novel set in the suburbs, it is a novel of the suburbs. Reviewers have located it in all sorts of places, from Middle America to Kent, to a small Irish village in the midlands – and this is a good thing. I want it to be a universal story. By contrast I chose Manhattan as the place of Elaine’s exile simply because the suburbs as we know them do not exist there.
A novel, or at least the novels I write, will usually have a long gestation period. An idea will stir inside my head, gain a bit of weight and then happily loll around in there until something gives it a prod and forces it up off the floor. This is fine – I know how to wait. There will be a few triggers, perhaps three or four – after which, there will be no turning back.
And so, one evening at dusk back in 2011, I happened to look out my bedroom window and notice that a house in the row backing onto ours had been sold. As I watched old furniture from the 1970s being carted out and placed across the back lawn, I started to remember our first days here and how, almost from the start, I had sensed something in the atmosphere – a certain eeriness that I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
In time, I would discover that there had been a tragedy in a neighbouring house during the 1970s – the murder of a child by another, older child. I had no wish to write about this tragedy – I would need to find my own story but . . . I did find myself thinking about collective guilt and even shame, the way it can linger on in a neighbourhood for generations to come.
A few days later, I was listening to an angry exchange on the radio regarding the abortion issue. Voices using phrases such as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” to slap each other across the airwaves. The word “women” kept jumping out. And I thought – yes, but what if you’re not yet a woman? What if you are hardly more than a child and you are afraid and alone and feel unable to turn to anyone other than your own little group of friends? And I thought of my best friend’s older sister in the 1970s and the appalling way she was treated when she became pregnant, the ranks closing against her in the name of respectability. And I remembered too, that it was in the 1980s that a girl called Ann Lovett died giving birth to a child, father unknown – or at least never named.
The final trigger was an episode of Mad Men. I was watching it with my husband. The Madmen themselves were tom-catting around Manhattan while back in the suburbs their wives, more like eldest children than partners in life, were busy playing house. And my husband sighed and said, my God, the lives of women – huh? And so I had my title – which is always a good start.
In writing this novel, I set out to do a few things: to write a portrait in miniature of female relationships: friends, sisters, wives etc but perhaps, most importantly the relationship between mother and daughter and what happens when it goes wrong.
I wanted, too, to get inside a woman’s head – much in the way as I had done with the male lead in my previous novel, The Cold Eye of Heaven.
The Lives of Women has turned out to be a controversial novel but it was never intended as a morality tale: I had no other ambition than to do justice to the characters and to allow my writing to find its own way out and fall down in the right way, onto the right landscape.
Above all, I wanted it to be a novel that would stand up to re-reading – preferably more than once. I didn’t want to parcel it up to hand like a gift to the reader. Things are left unsaid, as they are in life. Things remain unknown.