Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan

McEwan_ChildrenAct

2015, 224 p.

Like On Chesil Beach which preceded it, this book is quite short and has a similar tremulous, sinking, hold-your-breath feeling about it. It is named for the UK legislation of 1989 the Children Act which rules that “When a court determines any question with respect…to the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”.

The child in this case is Adam Henry, just three months short of his eighteenth birthday, who along with his parents, is refusing a blood transfusion rendered necessary by treatment of cancer because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The hospital, aware that time is running out, brings the case to the court, where it rests before High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

‘My Lady’ Justice Maye has come before other excruciating moral cases before in her capacity as judge with the Family Division, most particularly a case about the enforced separation of conjoined twins. In deciding this current case under such tight deadlines, she decides to go to the hospital to visit Adam Henry, who she finds to be highly intelligent, articulate and engaged. McEwen really knows how to built the tension as he reports her long-winded finding to the court, just as it would have been experienced by the gallery filled with family and journalists.

At the same time that professionally Fiona Maye is dealing with this, her own personal life is unravelling. After a long marriage with both partners working, her husband Jack announces that he wants to have an affair, now that the spark has gone from their marriage.  She is hurt, furious and ashamed. She has seen many ruptured families in her professional life, but somehow felt aloof from all that.

A professional life spent above the fray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide (p.49)

It’s only a small book, and I don’t want to give too much away. At heart is the question of how much responsibility Fiona has for Adam’s wellbeing both professionally and personally.

Adam’s case is just one in a long professional life, and I felt that McEwan turned too didactic in his backgrounding of the other cases she had heard. It felt clunky and contrived.  The ending is not as I expected it to be, and could perhaps be seen as a letdown. I didn’t see it that way, however.  I don’t believe in karma, and there is often no symmetry or fairness in consequences. The book has the same chilliness that many of McEwan’s books express, while dealing with pain and regret. Somehow it seems a very English combination.

I read this for my bookgroup, and it was my choice from about two years ago. It has taken some time for us to receive it! As it happened, we read it in November, just as the film was on general release.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: CAE bookgroup

‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

simonson

2010, 359 p.

This was a bookgroup selection and I’d left it late to start reading it. So, in the one night I was catapulted from Vichy France and Nazi interrogators in Lovers at the Chameleon Club  into  English village life, retired Army Majors and golf-club gossip in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. A very abrupt change of pace!

I was surprised to learn that Helen Simonson is an American writer, albeit British-born, who has lived in America for the past twenty years. She captures village life remarkably well. Midsomer Murders is a cliché, but when I visited my brother who lives near a village outside Maidenhead, I was stunned to find myself in a village that looked very much like that murderous locale, right down to the village green with the white posts and looped chain fence. This is the sort of place in which  68 year old Major Pettigrew (retired) makes his last stand.

Not that you’d know it from the opening pages of the book where, numb after the death of his brother, he has put on his deceased-wife’s floral housecoat. The doorbell rings, and he answer it to find Mrs Ali, the widow of the local general-store owner. With self-assured pomposity and casual racism, he had barely been aware of her except to buy his blended tea from her, but they strike up a friendship.  They are drawn into the disastrous plans by the local golf club to have as their party theme ‘The Last Days of the Maharajah’, an ignorant and insensitive event which conflates India and Pakistan, the Mughals and the Empire. Both the Major and Mrs Ali are quietly resisting the suffocating oversight of their son/nephew, both of whom are insufferable in different ways. The book does become rather hyperactive at the end.

Is it the persistence of Baby Boomers as a reliable reading market that has led to a rash of older-person ‘twilight’ relationships? I’m thinking of Our Souls at Night, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Australian author Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, all of which have older protagonists who are being pressured by their offspring.

This book is a comfortable read that reveals a wry sense of humour. I was reminded of Barbara Pym, and perhaps even shades of Jane Austen. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but it was a very enjoyable escape that made you squirm at time with embarrassment, roll your eyes at pretension and prejudice, and rejoice in a happy ending that didn’t necessarily tie up all the ends too neatly.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (a reading selection for my bookgroup)

Rating: 7.5/10

‘Almost French’ by Sarah Turnbull

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2002, 309 p.

Somehow or other, the deluge of books about women going off to France seems to have rushed past me. I hadn’t particularly been drawn to dip my toes into the flow, but this book was chosen by my bookgroup and so I read it, some sixteen years after it was published.

At the time of writing it, Sarah Turnbull was an expatriate freelance journalist living in Paris. Most of her journalistic work was published in magazines (similar to the Weekend Magazine that comes with the Age), and the lightness of her touch and self-deprecation makes this an easy and very pleasant read. Food, fashion, the joys (or not) of pet ownership are topics that she addresses in the book, and could easily be lifted for lifestyle magazine consumption.

She only intended going to Paris for a week, having met Frederic in Budapest, and accepting his offer of a week in Paris on a whim.  She ended up staying eight years. In this time she came to realize the truth of the words of an elderly man she had met on the Greek  island of Samos on her travels. After migrating to Australia, he had returned to Greece but felt it “a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures”.

She has to learn the language, and she feels excluded by her limited French and frustrated by her inability to assert herself. But more than words, she has to learn the French purpose of language in a social setting as a game, to show one’s quickness and wit. She struggles with the coldness of other French women until she recognizes it as a manifestation of competition. She mocks Frederic’s horror at her donning tracky-daks to go down to the nearby bakery, but finds herself equally affronted by the tackiness of English dress-sense when they go over to England for a weekend.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny in places, for example where Frederic quickly ties his jumper around his waist and affects a dodgy French accent when pretending to be an Australian tourist when they are challenged for trespassing. There are moments of poignancy too, like when she needs to don sunglasses in the plane when leaving Australia, looking at the Qantas advertisement and seeing the landscape curving away from her from her plane window.

This is really just a series of anecdotes, with no great plot shifts or crises. She is insightful in identifying the nuance and yet solidity of cultural difference. It is something that we can and should all be reminded of, going in the different direction, by people who are adjusting to Australia. It’s a light, enjoyable read- and yes, it made me wonder if perhaps I could go to France next year after all…..

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have put this title onto the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘From Strength to Strength’ by Sara Henderson.

henderson1

1993, 337P.

This book made me break two of my maxims. The first is that book-group selections must always be finished. My second is that if I find a book unreadable, I generally don’t blog about it at all.  In  this case, however, I found From Strength to Strength so enervating that I didn’t finish it even though it was a book-group selection. And as for the second, well, Sara Henderson has sold enough copies of this drivel that obviously other people found something in it, even though it completely eluded me. My little blog isn’t going to change that.

Born into a fairly affluent family, Sara had dreams of being a world-class tennis player. An accident which left her with serious injuries, put an end to that. She was swept off her feet by an American ex-serviceman, who spirited her away on his yacht. Always a womanizer with big dreams but poor follow-through, her husband Charles brought her and their young daughters to Bullo River Cattle Station in outback Northern Territory, where they lived in a tin shed for years. After multiple affairs, they separated although she nursed him when he was gravely ill, only to find herself a widow with a huge debt for the station. She and her daughters turned the station around economically, and she was proclaimed Telstra Businesswoman of the year in 1991.

The book started relatively well, where the author admits that this is the second version of her memoir, having decided after finishing the first draft that she does have to tell the truth about her no-good, womanizing, irresponsible husband Charlie. But I soon realized that her commentary – it is too kind to call them ‘reflections’- on her husband became engulfed by a tsunami of anecdotes, all told in the chatty, light tone of a Christmas-letter. The cliches and minutiae mounted; important events (like, say, the birth of her children) happened almost in passing, and it was not hard to discern that this book is a completely self-serving endeavour.

And not just this book either. She went on to write another five books. Her daughters, with whom she fell out at different times, wrote their own books, challenging their mother’s narrative.  Suffice to say, I am not tempted to read any more.

My rating: 2/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

‘Are You Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain

O'faolain

1998 edition, 356 pages

A few years back this book was on the bestseller list week after week.  I remember at the time picking it up, seeing the blurb from Frank McCourt, then putting it down again. Although I had been transfixed by McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I didn’t feel that I needed to read another Irish Misery Memoir. And so, some twenty or so years later, I came to Are You Somebody? as a bookgroup selection. And yes, there’s the feckless father, the despondent mother, the poverty, the pregnancies and the power of the Catholic Church – just as I anticipated there would be-  but there’s so much more. I just loved this book.

The subtitle of some editions of this book calls it an ‘accidental memoir’. Even though Nuala O’Faolain was very well known in Ireland, especially for her newspaper columns, I suspect I’m not alone in saying that I had never heard of her here in Australia.  But for her readers in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the relationship between a newspaper columnist and his/her readers is a strange one. There is a veneer of companionship and familiarity but it is all controlled on the author’s side. As a reader, you feel as if you know them, but you don’t.  And an editorial reshuffle or lost contract can sever the connection forever.

This book was intended to be a collection of her newspaper columns. She was asked to write an autobiographical introduction, but it grew beyond that.  In the ‘extended’ edition I read, roughly half of the resulting book is her introduction, followed by an ‘afterword’ reflecting on the response to the publication of the first edition, and the rest is her columns, arranged by theme.

This book really suffered for the lack of a good glossary or footnotes. As an Irish ‘personality’, writer and academic, she is enmeshed in Irish literary society and she name-drops liberally. As she becomes increasingly enchanted with the recovery of the Irish language, she also cites phrases and sentences that are not translated.  I didn’t ever lose the sense that I was reading about a different culture in a different country, (which, transposed, means that Irish readers would be strongly affirmed in their sense that this was their story). I had to google many of the references to then-current events in the newspaper columns. Of course, written almost 20 years ago, events have moved on, most particularly with the recent referendum on abortion, and the rise and fall (and recovery again?) of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Nuala was one of nine living children; her father was a gossip columnist who anglicized his name to ‘Terry O’Sullivan’. He was serially unfaithful and often absent. Her mother was an alcoholic and money was tight. Nuala escaped this life through education and the jobs that became available through the opening up of media opportunities, but underlying all this was her assumption that she would marry and have children. She never did. She had a string of liaisons, often with married men, and looking back at her life acknowledges that had she had a child when she was younger, she would have been a poor mother.  It shocked her to realize that she was inadvertently repeating her mother’s own self-destructiveness.

I found it somewhat difficult to get into her memoir. It is very well and artistically written, at a far more abstract level than her newspaper columns, and while it moves chronologically, there is a fair bit of movement back and forth in the early chapters. But by the middle of the book, and particularly at the end of her introduction and through her ‘afterword’, there was a shift. I felt stripped bare by her candour. This is a middle-aged woman, looking back without sentiment, at her choices, her body, her relationships, her sense of self. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so honest.

I’m not alone in thinking that. As she explains in her ‘afterword’ she was deluged with responses – probably many from other middle-aged women like me. This raw directness is even more apparent in an interview she gave just a few weeks before she died, after receiving a diagnosis of cancer that gave her mere weeks to live.  The interview comes with trigger warnings, as it certainly needed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so articulate, so bleak, so honest, from someone so close to death.  It is one of the most searing interviews I have ever heard: absolutely unforgettable.

I loved this book. I am of the right age and the right demographic to love it, I suppose. Perhaps it’s just as well that it took me twenty years to find it.  It will be right up there for my best reads of 2018.

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup read

My rating: 10/10

‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood

robberbride

1993, 576 p.

Set in Toronto, this book was published in 1993. Three female friends, Tony (Antoinette), Charis and Roz are having lunch together when another woman enters the restaurant: Zenia, a mutual ‘friend’ who was supposed to have died several years earlier. Each of these women has her own history with Zenia, a charismatic woman who variously lied, cajoled, blackmailed and bullied her friends.  The title comes from a Grimm Brothers fairytale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ where a young woman was threatened by her betrothed and his gang of men.  In an inversion of the fairytale, Zenia steals the husbands and partners of her friends.

After a too-long opening section which places the three women at the restaurant, the book then turns to each of the friends in turn. Tony is a military historian, a rare woman in a male-heavy academic field, who sees the world through her historical consciousness of memory, chance, inevitability and choice. Charis (formerly Karen) is a floaty-hippy type woman with a gruelling family background. Roz is a successful business woman whose own family background is shadowy.  Zenia finds her way into each woman’s vulnerability and uses it against them. While doing so, she engineers the break-up of their relationships with their men.

The real skill of this novel is Atwood’s full-blood rendering of each of these women in turn. In effect, it could be three books in one. They are all equally well-developed as characters, and their relationship with Zenia is plausible. The same cannot be said of Zenia, who remains enigmatic and depicted, in a rather over-wrought style, as the personification of evil. That’s the only truth about her: all the rest is lies and deception.

I was satisfied with neither the beginning nor ending of this book.  For the first fifty pages I kept thinking “Oh, just get on with it” and the ending was too quick and not entirely believable.  But the middle part – and that is where the crux of the book lies- is really well written.

It’s hard not to see this book in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Cat’s Eye (1988), both of which also deal with women’s cruelty to other women, although the cruelty here is at an individual, personal level rather than social or institutional.  It raises good questions about how feminine aggression is manifested, and how other women respond to it. It’s interesting to consider how the story would differ if a man preyed on the wives of his male friends, and how they would respond to his perfidy.

Sourced from CAE bookgroup

My rating: 8/10

‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7