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Book Review: Common Decency by Susannah Dickey

Book Review: Common Decency by Susannah Dickey

After the death of her mother, Lily moved in to an apartment block in Belfast, alone. Heavy with grief, she has shut herself off from the world, not seeing anyone outside of her job at the local hospital gift shop and her volunteer position in the office of a cancer charity.

She spends her days secretly interfering with the life of teacher Siobhan, who lives in the flat upstairs, and is in her own throes of despair, thanks to her relationship with the married Andrew. Although she has far more people in her life than Lily does, the only one she wants to see is Andrew, who has increasingly little time for her. Stuck in her own kind of isolation, she is miserable too. Still, jealous of what she sees as an exciting life, and annoyed at being disregarded when they’ve crossed paths in the block’s communal areas, Lily enacts revenge: getting hold of a key to Siobhan’s flat, moving and stealing things. Already suffering, Lily’s unseen torment threatens to push Siobhan over the edge.

Common Decency is the second novel from Susannah Dickey, and as in her first (Tennis Lessons) her background in poetry is apparent in the mellifluous, luminescent prose. Though nothing described here is particularly romantic – this is a book about loneliness, cruelty and existential despair – her writing makes the mundane, and sometime the downright ugly, beautiful. Amongst the many lovely passages, the account of an afternoon Lily and her mum spent watching a Wimbledon final on the TV jumps out; you can see the ball dancing and the players leaping, and smell the Pimm’s on the breath of the crowd in the stands. It’s vivid, luscious stuff.

So the style is sublime, and the content is thorny and complicated. Siobhan and Lily are difficult characters who aren’t easy to sympathise with; they both view others with an often scabrous contempt, they both lie and manipulate. They’re so blinkeredly wrapped up in their own lives, neither can see that they might find a much-needed real friend in each other if they actually started paying attention to the world outside their own fevered minds.

Although she’s the one waging the mental torment, Lily is actually the easier of the pair to feel for; whilst most people don’t process it with such borderline-psychopathic methods, the intensity of her grief is easy enough to understand, especially knowing how close a unit she and her mum were. Siobhan is much more nakedly unlikable; leaping knowingly into an affair with a married man and drowning in self-pity when the inevitable happens, behaving viciously towards those who just want to help her. And still, somehow, Dickey’s intimate prose invests us in the fate of both women, forces us to relate when it means admitting our own uglier impulses, and imbues us with something akin to relief as she starts to nudge them towards redemption.

Dickey does have an unfortunate tendency of over-explaining her themes, particularly in the novel’s closing chapters (an unnecessary epilogue from a third character underlines and circles the very clear message with a thick red marker). Whilst that’s a tad frustrating, it does little to detract from Common Decency’s prickly, empathetic power.

★★★★

Common Decency is published by Doubleday on 21 July 2022

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