Book Review: The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

This book had been on my peripheral since it had been re-released as part of the Text Classics collection. When I came across the title recently through my online library collection, I downloaded the audiobook to see what it was all about. The novel’s premise of a handful of women working in a department store in Sydney during the post-war period seemed somewhat light, but there was a wide selection of delights in store.

Covering a brief period from the end of the school year to the post Boxing Day sales (a significant retail event, even then), the novel follows the lives of several women working at the fictional F.G Goode department store.  The characters work in women’s fashion where there is a clear demarcation between the general women’s clothing and the high-end Model Gowns section.

The mix of staff include long-term employees such as Patty, a dissatisfied married woman, the younger Fay who is in a perpetual search for a man who is interested in something more than short-term fun, and the exotic cultured Magda, who exudes sophistication and is regarded with suspicion. Magda’s dark background is gradually revealed, and her warmth and generosity challenges initial assumptions. Into the mix  comes a seasonal casual called Lisa, employed for the busy period leading into Christmas and the post-Christmas sales. The shy, clever Lisa is able to provide entry into this world, and one of the many delights of the novel is the transformation of Lisa from a reserved and bookish school girl into a young woman with a bright future.

The conversational tone is evident from the outset of the novel:

Mrs Williams was a little, thin, straw-coloured woman with a worn-out face and a stiff-looking permanent wave. Her husband Frank was a bastard, naturally. He had married her when she was only twenty-one and he a strapping twenty-six and why they had failed to produce any children was anyone’s guess, but it was ten years after the event and still she was working although the house was fully furnished, furnished within an inch of its life in fact, and there was no particular need for the money, which she was saving up in the Bank of New South Wales, not knowing what else to do with it, while Frank continued to give her the housekeeping money which as a point of honour she spent entire, buying a lot of rump steak where other people in her situation might have bought mince and sausages, because Frank did like steak. (pp 4-5)

The shifting character viewpoint provides opportunities for humour and insight which are peppered throughout the novel. Whilst the characters have different backgrounds and motivations, they are created with compassion and depth, making their interactions engaging.

Listening to this book was such a joy that I had to rewind a couple of times as I had been laughing and missed some of the lines. Some of the sharpest humour was in the dialogue between Patty’s sisters as they come to grips with the inexplicable – but not overly unwelcome – disappearance of Patty’s admittedly odd husband.

‘She said do you think he’s gone for good? And I said of course not Mum. Frank won’t get far. I had to say that to stop her worrying about Patty. But I don’t know. Frank’s a dark horse, I’ve always thought so.’

‘Oh God,’ said Joy, ‘Frank’s not a dark horse, Frank’s a drongo. Get far! He couldn’t get here to Manly without a guide. He’s just buggered off somewhere in a stew, he’ll be back, worse luck. Poor old Patty.’

‘That’s no way to talk now,’ said Dawn. ‘Frank’s all right, he’s just a bit -‘

‘Stupid,’ said Joy. ‘Dim.’

‘Quiet, I was going to say,’ said Dawn.

‘And he’s being even quieter at the moment,’ said Joy, cackling with laughter.

‘Joy,’ said Dawn, ‘you’re awful.’

That was Joy all over: awful. (pp 129-130)

The resolution of a number of situations by the end of the book in ways not entirely foreseen made this a very satisfying novel. It left an impression of wit and warmth, of insights into a lost time but with echoes that resonate. The overview of Madeleine’s life by one of her peers, Bruce Beresford, as an introduction to the novel provided some context and offered a glimpse into St Johns’ life. It was an absolute delight.

ISBN: 9781921922299

Audiobook: read by Deidre Rubenstein

[Photo: shop front in Katoomba]

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

  1. Glad you enjoyed it too. I loved the way it described Sydney (and Australia) on the cusp of major social change with the arrival of migrants and all they contributed to our society and the beginnings of women seeking more rights and recognition. A great read. I do wish Bruce Beresford had been able to make the movie – I can’t help thinking that time is running out for him now.

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