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: Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne

For the last few years, I have been keeping my eye out for local history books based in and around the Blue Mountains. I have managed to find specific books about some of the mountain villages, and some books with a larger scope taking in most if not all of the area from the base of the mountains right through to the Hartley Valley.

If I had a wish list of what I would like to find in a book on the mountains, it would be this:

  • An overview of the mountain ranges to give scope and context;
  • An explanation of the key transport changes – without roads and rail, the mountains would not be a viable place to live;
  • Acknowledgement of the significant role played by fire through the mountains; and
  • A chapter on each of the villages from Lapstone to the Bells Line of Road.

In a perfect world, this information would be presented in an interesting, easily accessible fashion with appropriate references, key timelines and fabulous photos. Images are really important in helping to define the essence of the villages, particularly as for many people most of the villages are merely signs or points along the Great Western Highway when the speed limit drops and you have to slow down, again. There would also be an index so I can locate whatever specific place I need to find at any given time.

When I came across a tweet from a local bookshop that they were holding copies of the newly released Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne, I knew it was the book for me. Even sight unseen it promised to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about many of the villages, along with over 500 photos. It is all that I hoped for and more – check out the website to get a glimpse here.

The book provides an overview of how each village came about. For example, near Wentworth Falls there was another village called Brasfort which was incorporated into Wentworth Falls in 1895. I was aware that Wentworth Falls had been known previously as Weatherboard, but it was interesting to know how this name came about. The beautiful lake at Wentworth Falls was originally dammed to provide water for steam trains. There are many historical stories and snippets to pique interest as well, including the life and death of Mary James at Twenty Mile Hollow (Woodford), and the tragic fate of her eldest daughter whose body was found on the Victoria Pass. The ghost of Caroline Jones was said to haunt the area, and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘The Ghost at the Second Bridge‘ about a spectral encounter.

I have barely scratched the surface but that is one of the joys of a book like this. It is perfect for dipping into, or reading chapters on villages of particular interest. The further reading section will encourage the expansion of my book collection and there is a stack of websites to explore. It is a fabulous read for anyone with an interest in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been lucky enough to find a dream book on an area you are interested in?

[Photo: mountain views near Leura/Katoomba]