I For Isobel by Amy Witting

I For Isobel WittingConfession: Amy Witting’s I For Isobel (1989) has been on my shelf for ages and is the first work of hers I’ve read.

The novel records a decade in the life of Isobel Callaghan, from unhappy nine to unfulfilled 19. Isobel is a loner, someone who struggles to discern the rules other people live by; she always feels offside, “like being a spy in a foreign country having to pass for a native” (116). As a child, she is treated with barely disguised contempt and hostility by her mother, who favours her sister Margaret; she is bullied at school for being bright; she is haunted by her religious education, her seeming inability to be “good”, as well as her real and imagined misdemeanours.

Orphaned at 16, she goes out in the world to earn her living, finding work as a typist and German translator. She resides first at a boarding house, before taking her own room. Her great love is books – and books by Dead White Males comprise the bulk of her reading: Trollope, Dickens, Byron and, later, Dostoevsky, Auden and Eliot.

Isobel loves words, words to describe the people she meets, the places she goes in mid-twentieth-century Sydney. Words connect her to others, to the students she befriends in a Glebe cafe, to Frank the communist outsider where she works; they are also what separates her. Words are weapons to hurt and be hurt, as well as a balm to cure her loneliness; an oppressor and a liberator. Her mind is a “word factory” which never ceases production.

Eyes open, back to the ceiling: ornate plaster, baskets of flowers linked by swags of ribbon, a stain in one corner, yellow, like… sunshine? butter? honey? paler than pumpkin, darker than pee. Dirty old daylight, if there was a word.

There are words. Words we have plenty of, nasty little buzzing insects that they are. Awake two minutes and the word factory is at it already. And you at the loom, zoom, zoom.

It was going to be a bad day. (128)

Isobel isn’t always likeable as a protagonist: she is too passive; she is a “vacuum” that words rush to fill, a listener, a spectator of life rather than a participant. Her behaviour isn’t always admirable, but it is understandable; she is the embodiment of the phrase, “hurt people hurt people”.

The loosely linked chapters of I For Isobel chronicle Isobel’s travails as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, with her dishonesty (she is a “born liar”), with the half-buried hurts from childhood and misunderstandings that keep her yearning and, for most of the book, unfulfilled. At one moment she glimpses her place as the inheritor of a long line of genes that stretch back into history; as she looks in the mirror, hating her face because it reminds her of her mother, she has an epiphany:

the face shaped and softened with the beginning of a laugh because she was thinking those features weren’t her mother’s; she had had the tenancy of them for fifty years but they had been on the go for generations; that nose had taken snuff, sniffed at pomanders, plague posies, smelling salts, rose hip, orris root – things she had never smelt and never would – as well as honeysuckle, gas leaks and lavender… (137).

The book reaches a gentle crescendo when Isobel returns to the suburb she grew up in and comes face to face with an old foe. The encounter reduces her – and me – to tears. Left sobbing for the sorrow of having grown up in a family that failed her, the only comfort she receives is from the rock against which she rests her cheek, “as rough as a cat’s tongue and unyielding”.

I For Isobel may be the first of Amy Witting’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

~

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It’s also part of an effort I wish to make to read more Australian classics.

~

Author: Amy Witting
Title: I For Isobel
Publisher: Penguin
Date and place: Ringwood, Vic. 1989
ISBN: 0 14 012624 4

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The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

In the months before her arrest, Anne Baxter had many hours to think about her future.

Ligt on Water Olga LorenzoWith this riveting opening, Olga Lorenzo begins a tale of woe, of a woman whose only ambition has been to love and nurture her own children, someone who had survived a harsh upbringing by a mentally unstable mother, whose marriage to a prominent barrister ended because he was unable to give her the emotional support she needed, and whose second child was born with a significant disability. The disappearance of this child, her younger daughter Aida, on an overnight bush walk in a remote coastal area of Victoria is the inciting incident for the novel: the trigger for Anne’s grief, her incarceration, her sense of guilt and the judgement of many among the community and remand centre inmates who mete out ongoing punishment.

On many levels this is a tough book to read. Despite the difficulties of her upbringing and her experience of every mother’s worst nightmare, the awful loss of her child, Anne isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. She displays something which, as I noted in an earlier review, is missing from characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things: the learned helplessness of the victim, the utter mind-stultifying and body-disabling passivity of those who have discovered from a very early age that it’s no use fighting; that the opposition, be it an abusive parent, a judgemental waitress, a drunk outside an airport or a fellow prisoner, is more powerful and will prevail; that survival depends on “copping it sweet”.

It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. For survivors of abuse, it can trigger recognition and empathy for the weakest parts of ourselves, but not necessarily compassion. My own reaction was principally one of anger. I found myself wanting to shake Anne, to say, “Wake up to yourself. Do something. Act. Respond. Fight back. Don’t be such an idiot! Think.” That’s not to say Anne is totally passive: the times she does respond had me cheering, such as when she puts her hypocritical neighbour in her place. But for the most part I found her passivity disturbing, as it dramatised, as it were, the parts of myself that fill me with self-loathing.

Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. Running through the text are images drawn from nature: fish, insects, the coastal tides and the weather. At times the beauty of these images counterbalance the horror of Anne’s experiences; at other times, they echo them dispassionately or reinforce them:

Life has picked her up and carried her away on its own tide, lapping her up in its various eddies, disgorging her on these dangerous shores. (155)

Anne’s contemplation of the fish in her home aquarium stimulates reflection on her own passivity:

Is there something in her that demands that she not be comforted and helped? She’s sure there’s a pecking order among human, just as there is among her mollies, who vie for supremacy the minute two are put together in the aquarium. So does she need to have her fins shredded and her eyes picked out to remind her of her rightful place in the scheme of things? (75)

There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. At times, this lifts the narrative into a paeon to women’s work, the work of mothering, of nurturing and enduring. Anne comes to remember with fondness the bliss of everyday, ordinary activities associated with motherhood and caring for a family:

[S]he had loved washing day, the satisfaction of the clean smells emanating from the laundry, and then the calisthenics of bending and lifting and wrestling everything onto the clothesline. She had loved the breeze catching her family’s sheets and making them billow, as if they were setting off to new lands. She revelled in the sunshine trapped in the clothes when they were brought indoors. She had felt this was a way to love her family – folding their socks and t-shirts and underpants felt akin to stroking each person. (325)

This satisfaction is made all the more remarkable for the fact that women come to the – often thankless – tasks of domestic life and child-rearing unprepared:

No one trains them, explains the countless, simple lessons mothers give their children every day. The patience required. The mind-numbing patience. (262)

There are many more aspects of this book to praise: Lorenzo’s ear for Australian idiom and depiction of class differences; her deft thumbnail sketches of incidental characters that make these people come alive on the page; her use of powerful verbs; her insights into psychology and character; her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes harsh, portrayal of different types of families; as well as her skill in portraying a range of difficult and subtle human emotions:

Looking out over the water, life at that moment seemed sad and sweet and as fleeting as the day.

This was something she felt sometimes as a child – a wistfulness, but also a tentative inkling of future possibility, of life renewed and waiting, and of the transience of her own being. (242)

Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.

~

Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher and date: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781925266542

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

imageWhen a review copy of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner landed in my post office box, I thought, “Great, some new Aussie crime fiction!” Publishers know that I’m dedicated to reviewing works by Australian women and it’s rare they send me anything else.

So when I discovered the book was set in the UK and the author is a former journalist of The Guardian, I was a little taken aback; but the publicist who sent the book had done her homework. Those of you who know I set up a “We Love Books by Nicci French” group on Facebook will know I’m a sucker for dark and moody books that centre around a flawed female protagonist. Missing, Presumed is one of these and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main point of view character in Missing, Presumed is DS Manon Bradshaw, a cop in her late thirties whose biological clock is making ticking noises, sometimes loud, sometimes buried beneath a mountain of work or drowned out by disastrous encounters while internet dating. She drinks too much, doesn’t take care of herself, is scared off by polite, kind, gentlemanly types. She has a good best friend, a seemingly ever-optimistic partner on the job, and a fraught history with her sister.

When she is called on to investigate the disappearance of a young Cambridge grad student, Edith Hind, the daughter of a GP and surgeon to the royal family, she senses the case will be big. For a small regional police force with a chequered history where it comes to missing persons cases, it’s a high risk, high opportunity endeavour: bungling it could mean career death; solving it could establish her career and guarantee promotion.

Manon proves herself up to the task, but only barely. Throughout an extended investigation that sometimes looks and feels like it’s going nowhere, she suffers the ups and downs of affairs of the heart, strained office politics and family estrangement, all the while growing fond of a neglected ten-year-old boy whose elder brother is killed in suspicious circumstances.

While Steiner’s characterisation of Manon is deft, Manon is only one of several point-of-view characters, all of whom are equally well rounded. There’s Miriam, the missing girl’s mother; and there’s Davy, the Detective Constable, who works with Manon. Each has a story to tell and a journey navigating through fraught human relations.

The novel is carefully crafted and beautifully written. I kept wanted to stop and savour some of Steiner’s images – not always what a reader wants from a crime novel; but even if, at times, the language drew attention to itself a little too much, I didn’t mind. As well as the finally honed language, there’s a sensibility in the book that attracts me. This is a book you read not just out of curiosity for “whodunnit?” of “what happens next?”. It’s also a book which portrays both the best and worst of what it means to be human.

When I finished it, I immediately looked up the local library catalogue to see whether it has Steiner’s first novel, Homecoming (it doesn’t). Given that I’ve dozens of books on my To Be Read pile, I’d say this means Steiner is an author to watch.

~

Author: Susie Steiner
Title: Missing, Presumed
Publisher and date: HarperCollins, February 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-812328-4

 

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