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]

Advertisements

Book Review: True Stories by Helen Garner

First released in 1996, this collection of non-fiction stories spans a quarter of a century in an extraordinary writing life. Helen Garner is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost writers with a body of work ranging from journalism to novels, screen-writing to reviews. Her recent published works have been non-fiction including This House of Grief and a collection of essays in Everywhere I Look. There are many hints of what was to follow in Garner’s work in some of these essays.

The book opens with an overview of Garner’s writing career at this point titled ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, before segmenting into four parts: A Scrapbook, An Album; Sing for Your Supper; The Violet Jacket and Cruising. The stories are roughly grouped together by themes, spinning and weaving through a wide range of topics and experiences from teaching students about sex to a series of sisterly interviews (Garner is the eldest of five daughters and one son). The reader follows her into a mortuary and into a registry office, before travelling by train across Victoria and out to sea on a Russian cruise ship. There is time to marvel at the amazing produce at the Royal Melbourne Show, and to gain insight into the professional pride of maintaining a public pool – the Fitzroy baths.

Darker themes are explored rather than evaded. Following the piece on days spent observing at the morgue there is a somewhat surreal visit to a gun show. The shadow of violence and aggression overlays ‘The Violet Jacket’ and ‘Killing Daniel’ is devastating to read, a piece that once read cannot be forgotten. There are fleeting moments captured with clarity, such as an old woman making her way down hospital stairs with the help of a younger woman. She says ‘It gets worse. It gets worse. The grief gets worse.’ Garner’s ear and eavesdropping skill are demostrated throughout the collection.

But humour and honesty is also in evidence. Garner is upfront about her otherness, her role as the observer with a notebook, cataloguing and condensing the essence of human experiences, significant and otherwise. Warmth and wit flows through the sibling interviews with each sister numbered rather than named. The shifting alliances, the similarities and shared histories are documented in such a way as to give a sense of the camaraderie.

In David Jones’ ‘perthume’ department, Two says to One, ‘Here – let me squirt this on you, in case I hate it.’

In ‘Three Acres, More or Less’, Garner writes of a block of land with old orchard trees, a couple of dams, a shed and a house. Her father pays an unexpected visit, giving a brusque overview of all that is wrong or needs work about the place before quietly admitting before he leaves that he could live in a place like that. During the night, the silence is shattered by someone out in the dark with a shotgun. In true Garner style, the story doesn’t finish quite as you might expect.

For all the moments of seeing the world through the prism of other people’s lives and experiences, there are glimpses of the familiar in these stories for me. The drawing of a young, sulky girl by John Brack. The visit to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat on a day so hot that Garner buys a copy of Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton and reads it at the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, sitting under a large sign saying SILENCE.

Garner is generous in sharing insights into her writing process. The collection includes stories of attending writers’ festivals and reviews of other writer’s work, including Elizabeth Jolley and Germaine Greer. ‘Patrick White: The Artist as the Holy Monster’ is an excellent overview of David Marr’s biography, described as a ‘grand and gorgeous book.’

I read the book on planes, in buses, at meal tables. I became deaf, I laughed, I cried.

Some of these stories were familiar, read years ago. But this recent encounter seemed to lose none of the vivacity and humanity despite the passing of the years. I’d found the audiobook on the online library catalogue, narrated by Garner herself. This was an audible treat, a wonderful way to immerse in these individual but not unrelated stories. It has only served to deepen my existing appreciation of Garner and her extensive body of work.

[Photo: view inside the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Soverign Hill]

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

For Your Listening Pleasure: Why Audiobooks Are Great

There seems to be some contention about audiobooks. By listening to a book being read to you, are you really reading the book?

A stray tweet reminded me recently of the early discovery of the joy of having a book read aloud. Sure, the Disney records and books were also about learning how to read and follow a story, even if there were words on the page that were beyond the reader’s vocabulary at that point. The chime of a bell to mark the turning of a page would probably still produce a response from me today.

Audiobooks on tapes, CD and MP3 are provided by local libraries, and now they can be downloaded online from the comfort of home. There is no fear of forgetting to return them and incurring fines as they simply vanish on the expiry date unless you extend the loan. It really couldn’t be easier to tap into a whole world of literature and non-fiction with the only expense being time and bandwidth.

I have been introduced to many of my favourite books through listening to the audio version. Recent highlights have included:

  • The Belltree Trilogy by Barry Maitland: a detective series featuring Harry Belltree and set around western Sydney and Newcastle. This was memorable for the morally ambiguous main character and the excellent narration of Peter Hosking, who has guided me through many books including several featuring Peter Corris creation PI Cliff Hardy.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty. This was a recent read for my book group and whilst I had the book itself, I was struggling to get into it. I listened to a sample of the audio book and suddenly the narrator’s voice was clear and I ended up enjoying the book much more than I would have thought.
  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Again I had the book and had read segments of it, but listening to it read by the author added an extra element of enjoyment and depth. It was an invigorating experience.
  • Rain and Other Stories by W S Maugham and The Home Girls by Olga Masters. Two short story collections by masters of the craft. Years later I can still recall elements of the stories made even more vivid with the telling.
  • Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater and Simon Vance.  I don’t usually listen to audiobooks more than once but these books are an exception to the rule.

There are, of course, downsides to listening to books. If the narration doesn’t resonate I tend not to persevere. Fortunately you can usually download a sample before committing to the entire book. For really long works this is a wise step as some books can go for days, literally. And it isn’t possible to listen all the time: concentration does drift away sometimes and some books have the odd boring passage. As yet, I haven’t skipped to end of the book to see how it ends, which is something I would do with a physical book that was not maintaining my interest.

If I really enjoy the audiobook, I will usually pick up a copy of the book itself to revisit passages or re-read entirely. For me, audiobooks supplement my love of reading, providing a convenient entry into another world, and one that I can enjoy whilst driving, cooking, cleaning and the like.

Do you listen to audiobooks?

[Photo: reading room in one of the buildings at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat]

 

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.