- 12 Aug 22
Lily lives downstairs from Siobhán. She moved into the flat after her mother, worried about Lily’s social awkwardness right up until her end, passed away from cancer. She works two less than fulfilling jobs, volunteering at a charity only to break the monotony of her time in the hospital gift shop and, as her own reality doesn't have much to cling on to, she starts to fixate on the tenant upstairs.
Siobhán might seem to Lily to have it all – casual good looks that she admires as the object of her attention shakes her hair in the rain, and a permanent teaching position – but she’s carrying her burdens too. She’s in love with Andrew, an arse of an academic - I think I've met him - who’s never going to leave his wife, and Siobhán knows it. She's worried she's going to end up like the genial Caz, who lives alone in another of the flats and is of an indeterminate age. Her living room is kept in a state of readiness but the bedroom that nobody sees is a mess. As the pages turn, Lily’s obsession appears to be heading into ever darker territory, stealing the spare key from Caz and interfering in Siobhan’s domain, both her mailbox and her flat.
And talking of flats, Common Decency happens to be set in the flatlands of Belfast - the city where the author resides - but it could be any city, anywhere. There's little or no mention of sectarianism, marching, fellas in balaclavas, or soldiers. This is a snapshot of the psychology of modern urban life and how alone some people can feel in a crowd. Any shadows from history would be superfluous to requirements.
Dickey’s novel, her second following 2020’s Tennis Lessons is quietly gripping, which may come as a surprise given that slightly mundane premise. Though the opening promises some sort of violent act - Siobhán's corpse is surely going to end up in a dumpster out the back? - Dickey skilfully turns the expectations the reader builds on their head, constantly shifting focus between two narrative points of view until you’re unsure where your sympathies should lie, only to realise that both women warrant them. Lily exhibits some strange behaviour but there’s an absence of malice, while Siobhán, who we can tell is at heart a decent skin from the way she interacts with the children under her charge, clings to a hopeless entanglement. Both women attest to the fact that we’re all as messed up as each other, despite appearances. Loneliness - and the fear of it - can be an awful thing. Everyone's looking for something to hold on to.