Book review: The Lives of Women

Christine Dwyer Hickey is a woman in a hurry — she fears she might run out of time before she gets to write all the books she wants to. She spoke to Sue Leonard about her race against time and her latest book.

Christine Dwyer Hickey

Atlantic Books, €16.99; Kindle, €7.40

‘I’m terrified I’ll run out of time’

ONE afternoon in 2011, Christine Dwyer Hickey looked out of her bedroom window and noticed that the neighbours opposite were moving house.

All this 1970s-style furniture was being brought out and the personal artifacts made her wonder about their lives. Making notes, Christine wrote a chapter inspired by what she saw.

This got her thinking about her suburban childhood, and the women who had influenced her back then. “I noticed in women’s company there was a lot of smoking at tables and a sense of sadness. I picked up entrapment and a kind of frustration amongst the women I knew well.

“But the principal thing that I sensed amongst the neighbours was loneliness. Being middle class, I think, was harder than for working class women. They were keeping up this show of respectability and weren’t always in each other’s houses.

“When my mother got married she burnt all the letters from her old boyfriends. At 23 she was giving up that part of her life because she was in love with this man. It’s like she was entering the order of marriage.

“She had lived at home before they married so she didn’t know my father well. Women like her were financially dependent on someone else, and in a way, it was like the kindness of strangers.”

Things didn’t work for Christine’s parents. They had split by the time she was a teenager so it’s perhaps not surprising that as a young woman, she was absolutely determined not to get married. “I thought, ‘I am so not getting married.’ I picked up that after marriage you lost your life.”

It was a chaotic childhood. Christine attended seven schools, some, like Mount Sackville were superb; others less so. The eldest of five, she was brought up principally by her father, a gambler, and drew on this experience in her third novel, Tatty, the first to bring her to prominence. She certainly knows a thing or two about the fractured family. Would she agree that it helps a writer to have an unhappy childhood?

She nods. “We weren’t the only unhappy family in the neighbourhood, but we were the only one that everybody knew about, because we were the loudest. I met an ex neighbour recently, and he said that probably every family in the road had problems, but everyone knew our business. Most people’s unhappiness stayed behind closed doors.

“There was an element of living my childhood on red alert. I was asked to do a reading about Joyce’s influence on my writing, and the similarities between our childhood were striking. They never say it about Joyce, but when you read about his childhood it is obvious his father was an alcoholic. He lived his childhood on red alert and it makes you extra observant.”

When she started writing, following the example of Joyce, and of Virginia Woolf, Christine realised that she should view the world through her character’s eyes. “You take a location, put a character in it, and put a camera behind their eyes and a sounding device into their ear, and let them go. I see a scene before I write it,” she says. “I almost never put in a sentence for the sake of it.”

She uses that art to great effect in her new novel — her seventh — The Lives of Women. Returning from New York to look after her sick father, the middle-aged Elaine Nichols is thrust into memories of her teenage years and haunted by a tragic event that marked her and her friends for life.

She had watched her reclusive mother gain a new lease of life when Serena, an American divorcee with liberal views, shows her neighbours there’s more fun in afternoons spent socialising over a martini than tied to their womanly responsibilities.

Meanwhile, their teenage children, sticking together, devise a plan to help a friend which has tragic consequences. It’s a stunning portrait of a section of ’70s Ireland, and comes after The Cold Eye of Heaven, Christine’s most lauded novel.

That novel, written from the point of view of a man, came more naturally to the author. “I was brought up in a male environment. I had four brothers and no sisters and my father was a ‘real’ man. It meant you

would be at the races or in the pub, surrounded by men all the time, so I picked up the nuances. They didn’t talk about their problems, it was all sport or politics. Women are much more complicated.”

She’s made an excellent job of getting into women’s heads. The Lives of Women is a wonderful read — thought provoking and compelling — and is, to my mind, Christine’s best to date.

Several elements are borrowed from Christine’s childhood. Like her protagonist Elaine Nichols, she was sick as a teenager. She spent three months in isolation in Cherry Orchard Hospital, suffering from severe viral pneumonia. A form of this illness recurred recently; Christine wrote The Cold Eye of Heaven with crippled hands and is on medication for life.

She didn’t become pregnant as a teen, but remembers others who did. “A friend’s elder sister was whisked away and her life ruined, to keep a sense of respectability, and a girl at school was turned out for becoming pregnant. People talk about pro-life and pro-choice, but there is no choice, or certainly there wasn’t at the time.”

Her current neighbourhood was an inspiration too. “When we moved here to Palmerstown many years ago, people weren’t unfriendly but I sensed something defensive, particularly amongst the elderly community. It made sense when I realised that the case of the ‘boy in the attic’ happened in my road.”

This was the tragic case, back in 1973, when a seven-year-old was killed by a teenager in a satanic ritual.

“I realised the oddness stemmed from a sense of collective guilt. It wasn’t the community’s fault, but it was very difficult for them,” she says. “I didn’t want to write about that case, but the knowledge of it influenced me in lots of ways.”

It’s been a steady rise to recognition for this now celebrated Dublin author.

“The launch of my first novel, the first of my Dublin trilogy, was almost exactly 20 years ago,” Christine says. “The first was nominated for Irish Novel of the Year in Listowel, but those books went largely unnoticed.”

Contrary to her early expectations, Christine did marry, and has been happy with Denis for well over 20 years. They have three adult children.

Denis, who owns a legal company, and is a composer, is her first reader. “He’s pretty good at editing,” she says.

“In the early days there were tears when he said, ‘That’s not working.’ I’d say, ‘But it’s a lovely sentence!’ Now we’re like surgeons. We put the manuscript on the table and read it through together. I always say, ‘I could never leave you because of your editing, and if you talked of leaving me I’d fight tooth-and-nail just for that.”

Christine does her main splurges of writing in Italy, where she has an apartment. “We go together, and Denis spends his days composing,” she says.

“Last year I finished the book in a three-month frenzy. I was up at five every morning and could not stop. I felt if I took my eye off the ball, even for dinner or to stop thinking about it for one second, I would lose that tension. I let my husband cook but he can’t. I’d say, ‘Give me a biscuit!’ When I finished we went to Genoa for the day. And boom, I got a migraine.”

Hugely likeable and gregarious, there’s a sense with Christine of a women in a hurry. She speaks in a torrent of words, leaving sentences unfinished, and says there is no danger of writer’s block. With nine books published, including a play and a collection of stories, she is currently working on a second play, and has another strong idea for a novel brewing.

“I’m terrified I’ll run out of time before I’ve written all the books I want to,” she says.

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