Rebellious Daughters – a review

rebellious-daughtersWhat makes girls and women conform or rebel? What challenges have Australian women faced growing up in ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse families over the past sixty-plus years?

Rebellious Daughters, edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, is a collection of stories about growing up, parenting and being parented, by seventeen Australian women of diverse ages and backgrounds, including Greek, Jewish, Asian, Anglo and Bosnian. It is book-ended by – I suspect – the two oldest contributors, Marion Halligan and Jane Caro. Halligan’s piece harks back to a time when the contraints on girls growing up were just as much internal as external; when saying the word “brothel” (which happened to rhyme with her “maiden” name) wasn’t the done thing in polite society, and that norm was adopted by the author almost unquestioningly. Caro’s contribution, by contrast, reflects on a time of vastly different mores; when she not only shows no affront when her teenaged daughter swears at her (“If you’re so keen on fucking counselling…why don’t you fucking go?”), she actually takes her daughter’s advice. Elsewhere in the collection, the narratives reflect a huge shift in Australian women’s lives, the result of changing attitudes towards sexuality, contraception and marriage; religion and cultural beliefs; as well as expectations of women regarding motherhood and careers. Along the way, it ranges over themes of obedience and disobedience; mental health and illness; travel and education; pregnancy and mothering; as well as the sometimes fraught choice of whether or not to have children. Weaving through them all is a common theme: how can one, as a woman, grow up to lead a “good” life, without having to be a “good girl”?

For me, there were a number of standout contributions. Some made me laugh, including Lee Kofman’s “Me, My Mother and Sexpo” and Michelle Law’s “Joy Ride”. Others moved me to tears, including Halligan’s “Daughters of Debate” with its “landscape of loss”, and Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’ “Just Be Kind”. Some use metaphor as a vehicle for carrying complex emotions, such as guilt and love in Leah Kaminsky’s “Pressing the Seams”; while Rochelle Siemienowicz, in “Resisting the Nipple”, takes a more psychoanalytic approach, quoting Jung as a way to help navigate such complexities. Several times I found myself holding my breath at the raw honesty of some of the contributors as they revealed their flaws in relation to the choices they have made, such as when reading Caroline Baum’s account of her estrangement from her parents in her early forties in her piece titled, “Estranged”.

The winner of the 2014 Stella Prize, Clare Wright, is quoted on the cover: “This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that has given me such unadorned pleasure.” “Pleasure” doesn’t quite cover it, for me. After reading Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’ piece, I took to Twitter, declaring I felt “gutted”. The author got back to me, saying, “Glad you enjoyed it (is enjoyed the right word???!)” I responded, “A new word needs to be invented, embracing mangled, uplifted, saddened and heartened. With just a touch of amused thrown in.” That new word – if it existed – might apply not only to Henry-Jones’ piece, but also to the entire collection. It’s well worth a read.

~

Title: Rebellious Daughters: True Stories from Australia’s Finest Female Writers
Eds: Maria Katsonis & Lee Kofman
Publisher: Ventura Press
Date: 2016
ISBN: 9781925183628

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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On Art and Motherhood: or, this is not a romance – The Steele Diaries by Wendy James

wendy-james-steele-diariesThe Steele Diaries, Wendy James’ second novel, originally published in 2008, has recently been re-released as an ebook by Momentum. It’s a novel I’ve looked forward to reading since I discovered a paperback copy on my local library’s discard table. I’d enjoyed James’ The Mistake when I read it as part of the AWW challenge last year and I was hoping for another compulsive read.

This novel didn’t disappoint, but it was different from what I’d anticipated. The Steele Diaries takes a more considered approach than The Mistake, and it wasn’t till halfway through that I felt compelled to keep on turning pages. Loosely, it covers the same territory: family drama – or “Suburban Noir” – with the possibility of crime. In The Steele Diaries, the story unfolds at a gentler pace and has a more literary feel than The Mistake. In the end, however, it packs a similar punch and is arguably even more thought-provoking.

According to James, who was interviewed by Kirsten Krauth last year, the novel was inspired by “stories of various artists’ and writers’ lives — in particular Joy Hester, Sunday Reed, Sylvia Plath, Vanessa Bell, [and] Angelica Garnett — and their differing experiences of motherhood and childhood”. There’s no glossy, sentimentalising of motherhood here; rather, the depiction of the fraught nature of disappointed dreams and imperfect relationships makes for, at times, uncomfortable and confronting reading.

The drama revolves around three women: Ruth, a middle-aged doctor who has recently lost her father; Zelda, Ruth’s mother, an illustrator of children’s books; and Annie, acclaimed artist, Zelda’s mother. It weaves first person narratives from Ruth and Zelda – Zelda’s section being quite literally a “diary” – with a brief account of a time in Annie’s life, as imagined by Zelda.

While depicting the complex and painful relationships between these mothers and daughters, the story dramatises the pressures which childbearing places on a woman’s creativity, sense of autonomy and mental health. It draws on themes familiar to folk and “fairy” tales, the terror of abandonment and the hinted possibility of a mother’s indifference to her child, an indifference which borders on brutality. Such unsafe – even grotesque – preoccupations are reflected in the Art described in the novel, both in Annie’s paintings and Zelda’s wood-block illustrations, as well as in the narrative. Readers are positioned as eavesdroppers or voyeurs on these women’s private lives, a narrative strategy which creates a self-reflexive meditation on Art as a vehicle for telling unpalatable truths, particularly about women’s “failures” to live up to their own and others’ expectations. In portraying these failures, the story both stretches and tests our capacity to respond with sympathy.

Steele-Diaries_ebookGiven the weight of the book’s themes, you’d have to wonder about the covers, both the original – with its face of a beautiful, carefully coiffed woman floating over an Outback scene – and the more recent offering from Momentum, with coy lovers kissing under an umbrella. Both are seriously misleading.

James had something interesting to say to Krauth about book covers and marketing mistakes:

So many novels by women — especially those writing about domestic life — are given covers that don’t quite match the content. My first two novels — one about an infanticide, the other about art and motherhood — were marketed as romances. This misrepresentation certainly doesn’t help establish a readership.

Whatever genre you might call The Steele Diaries, it’s not a romance. Momentum book designers, what were you thinking?

~

This review counts towards Australian Literature Month hosted Kim at Reading Matters (who will donate 50p to the Australian Literacy Foundation for every review of an Australian book during April) as well as Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

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