Daily Archives: March 6, 2011

’88 lines about 44 women’ by Steven Lang

2009, 257 p

(4.5 /5)

This is a damned good book.  I hadn’t heard of it at all until Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it. I liked the title and, self-willed exile from the land of new wave music that I am, I didn’t realize that it was the name of a song by The Nails that has moved into its second generation with a recent digital remastering.  The author does mention this in passing, which is just as well because I’d been wondering where the other 41 women in the book were. In fact I’ve just realized that,  like the remastering of the song that gives the book its title,  in this book we are seeing an old event re-lived and re-enlivened many years later.

There may not be forty-four women, but there are three women in this book, with the shadowy presence of many more.  We meet the most significant one in the opening pages of the book- and what a jolting opening it is, drawing you right in- and she dies right there within the first chapter.  For the next twenty years her husband Lawrence (Larry)keeps returning to her death, shamed and shrunken by it. He had been the keyboard player in a successful rock band: she had been a TV soapie star. He’d had a peripatetic life: boarding school education, Scotland holidays   with his boarding-school friend Roly who later cajoled him into joining him in Australia where their musical career began, and touring with the band on the fringes of international stardom. Twenty years later he is back in the  Scotland highlands, leasing a cold and isolated farmhouse to work on his music again more seriously, facing medical problems and still paralysed emotionally by Gizelle’s death.  There had been a New-Age lover in Byron Bay who filled his head with psychobabble, and now in Scotland he meets Sam, a self-reliant, fiesty single mother.  She learns, independently, of Gizelle’s death and bridles against his secrecy over it.

The book itself is divided into three parts marking the three days since Sam confronts him after learning about his first wife’s death.  Within these parts, Lang traverses back and forwards across the  twenty years since Gizelle’s death, Larry’s childhood, his emergent relationship with Sam, his relationship with his elderly parents and his rock star lifestyle.  I’ve been complaining lately about books with short, hyperactive ‘chapters’ that lurch the reader from one narrative viewpoint and location to another.  There’s none of that here-  Larry as the narrative voice is leisurely, discursive, emotionally complex and ultimately unreliable.  After a gripping beginning, the story unspools almost effortlessly with beautiful descriptions of landscape and a vulnerable, damaged masculine consciousness.

This book had me in from the very beginning.  It was shortlisted for the 2010 Christina Stead  Prize for fiction and the Queensland Premier’s Award.  Lang has given us an assured, pitch-perfect work that would have been a worthy winner.