“Why on earth did they choose THAT cover? Or that name? It’s awful!” said my son. I looked at it more closely. Even though the title whispers ‘self-help’ book for women of a certain age, that picture was too honest. What I saw was a confident, clearly middle-aged woman, actually getting her hair wet, swimming at the beach. I can hardly bear to think of what my son saw: it obviously didn’t attract a thirty-one year old male reader. Never mind- this book clearly isn’t aimed at that demographic. The book and its cover are directly aimed at another demographic: that of the middle-aged, Australian, RN-listening female reader who would constitute, I should imagine, a fairly healthy slice of the book-buying public. The author, playwright Hannie Rayson admits as much:
I just have to imagine you, tucked up in bed, wanting something companionable and consoling. Irish Murdoch said literature should never console. I think that’s bollocks.
My women friends have big jobs. They have families. At night when they climb into bed they read two pages of the novel on the bedside table and fall asleep. The next night they have to reread those two pages. They creep forwards slowly, page by page, until Saturday. Then, because they are optimists, they buy another novel.
An idea began to take shape. I could write those two pages. Three would be manageable. But once I started, I found I had more to say.
Some of these stories began their lives as articles in the Age or HQ magazine. All of them have been reworked with a simple rule: everything has to be true. More or less. (p. 2)
And that’s pretty much it. As promised, the chapters are short and all have the ring of authenticity. It’s just the sort of book you want to read when you can’t handle anything too heavy before you fall asleep, or when you’re stretched out in the shade on a summer’s day. Like Crabbe/Sales’ podcast Chat10Looks3, it’s a bit like sitting alongside friends who are full of gossip. In this case, it’s writerly, arts world gossip with her husband Michael Cathcart (or MC as she often calls him) in a droll walk-in, walk-off role, and snippets of Helen Garner and Carrie Tiffany- a world that her readership peers through the window at, somewhat enviously.
The chapters are arranged more or less chronologically, starting with her childhood in a rented house in East Brighton (and hence, not the other Brightons) in the 1960s, with her real-estate agent father and home duties mother. She kept an adolescent diary, and while cringing at the person she finds in its pages, she uses it to good effect. She attends the Victorian College of the Arts and discovers that she’s not an actress and finds herself as a playwright instead. She walks straight into a full-time acting job with TheatreWorks, a community theatre company with a mandate “to create theatre for the people of the eastern suburbs”. So there she is, driving with her colleagues to the outer reaches of Burwood from centre-of-the-universe Fitzroy; playing Storming Mont Albert by Tram, a piece of location theatre on the Number 42 tram. There are large, unexplained gaps and jumps in the chronology taken as a whole, but each chapter is neatly self-contained, and there is a refreshing humility and down-to-earthness about success that could have turned into pretension and name-dropping in other hands. We leapfrog from first marriage, to childbirth, to amicable breakup, to repartnering, to waving off an adult child as he heads of overseas, to settling into mature professionalism- all with humour and humanity.
No, dear son, that picture on the front of the book is just right. It’s self-assured with a healthy tinge of anxiety and a dollop of self-depredation. This is a book that knows what it’s doing and who it’s doing it for, and it does it well.
I’ve posted this review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.