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

Dreams, books and weird experiences

Do you believe in psychic phenomena?

I was at a reunion of old school friends yesterday and I mentioned how, years ago, I went to India with my mum and sister, and stayed in a hotel in Agra near the Taj Mahal. One of the services promoted there was a reading with a psychic, and my sister and I promptly booked into a session. At breakfast, just before our appointment, I told my sister about a friend whose boyfriend was “jealous and possessive”. Minutes later, the psychic used those same words. “You’re going to marry someone who is jealous and possessive.”

I went away after listening to all he had to say, impressed but sceptical. The man had a gift. How else could he have lifted that phrase from my mind? But his predictions couldn’t be trusted. He’d mentioned nothing about me being a writer, for instance, which everyone knew was my burning goal. He’d thought I was a doctor or a teacher. With a little prompting, he mentioned that writing would figure in my life, in some capacity. But I was hoping for more than that.

Years later, having obtained my PhD (the doctor part) and having derived most of my paid work as a teacher (despite never wanting to teach), I look back at that exchange and wonder. Have I unconsciously fulfilled the destiny that was predicted for me, despite not wanting to? I remember Oedipus.

In drafting several novels, I’ve often had what I can call minor psychic experiences. A lot of novelists have them, apparently. I’ll choose a character’s name and invent a place, only to discover such persons and places really exist. Once, when I was in London, I had the sudden urge to go to an exhibition at the British Library, only to discover a sign on the first exhibit included the name of my character.

Weird, but rather pointless coincidences.

Now I’m drafting a novel in which dreams figure prominently. I also have trouble sleeping. Last night, I woke up in the early hours and downloaded a podcast from Radio National, a repeat of the Law Report. It’s about children in the US who get mandatory sentences of life in prison, and not just for homicide, but also burglary. (Source)

After finally getting back to sleep, my partner woke me up this morning by bringing me a coffee. The kind gesture interrupted a library caper dream. In it, I was an investigator, looking into the disappearances of rare and valuable books from a library collection. I was just about to let a sweet old couple drive off, when I noticed they had a stack of rare books on the floor of their car. I realised they were stealing the books because the library couldn’t be trusted to look after them.

Instead of dobbing the couple in, I asked if they had taken a particular title. They had. I said, if they’d give me that book, I’d let them go. (I’d become complicit in their conspiracy.)

In came my partner with the coffee, and I woke up from the dream. I tried to remember the details, particularly which book the old couple had given me, and all I could think of was the name “Thomas More” and the word “justice”. That was enough for me to Google and this is what I found:

I must say, extreme justice is an extreme injury: For we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital, nor of that opinion of the Stoics that makes all crimes equal; as if there were no difference to be made between the killing a man and the taking his purse, between which, if we examine things impartially, there is no likeness nor proportion. (Source)
Thomas More

Thomas More

The above quote is from Thomas More’s Utopia, a book I’ve never read. I don’t know whether the podcast mentioned it. Possibly. But I fell asleep. What interests me is not just the applicability of More’s thinking to the situation faced by so many (mostly underprivileged) juveniles in the US (although it’s life imprisonment, not the death penalty they face). I’m also interested in how dreams can tell us things we don’t know we know, make connections that our waking minds struggle to make. Maybe dreams draw on things we’ve heard or read; maybe we draw on a collective unconscious. I don’t know. But when I dream about books, about justice, and make connections such as those described above, I tell myself, it doesn’t matter if I ever get published as a writer. I’m playing my part in something wonderful and mysterious, human consciousness, and that’s enough for me.

~
If you’re interested, Bryan Stevenson was the person interviewed for that podcast. He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative @eji_org.

How deep is this thing?

Today I spoke to a lovely friend, Eden Riley, who blogs at Edenland. When I first read her blog, I was blown over. Eden writes just as she talks. Funny, irreverent, quirky, smart. With shit-loads (as she would say) of heart and soul. No wonder she was invited to speak at the BlogHer convention last week in San Diego.

Then I read some of the (many) comments by her followers and discovered how deeply her honesty touches people. How humbling!

It made me think about “voice” in writing. And courage, honesty, integrity. As an aspiring writer, I’ve often heard about editors and publishers looking for the next new “voice”. For me, hearing and reading Eden, it’s suddenly no mystery. It’s like Somerset Maugham said (paraphrasing): If you want to be an amazing writer, try being an amazing person first. The rest will follow.

Eden’s an amazing person and her writing reflects that. Way to go, Eden! You’re a fantastic example of having the courage to be true to yourself. And thanks for being the inspiration for my first blog. Finally.

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)
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