Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)


(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?


Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)


One really good book I recently finished (and haven’t really reviewed here) was called “Elizabeth is Missing” by Emma Healey. Called a “darkly riveting debut novel, a sophisticated psychological mystery…”, this was a really enjoyable (and quite challenging) read. Expectations were also raised with a cover blurb from Deborah Moggach (whose work I usually love) who wrote “I read it at a gulp.” And you know what? I did “read it in a gulp” (or at least what counts for a gulp in my reading life). This was great.

It’s a novel (combining itself with these other genres) about one elderly woman called Maud who suffers from dementia who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing. But when you have dementia (quite advanced, it seems), how do you convince your family that your friend really IS missing and that it’s not just part of your illness speaking? (Or is she really missing?)  Who is to judge what is reality and memory, and how to portray that? It was a fascinating and complex read.

To try to solve this and to check on her friend’s well-being, Maud visits Elizabeth’s house – but is she there? Or not there? Maud tries to track her steps with a system of notes and of spotting rocks on the pavement, but that leads to complications: did someone move the rock? Was that the same rock as she had spotted last time? Was this the right street? Which note has the right and most recent information? Did she need to get peach slices from the corner shop? (Peach slices get some mentions in this book.)

With an unreliable memory as a leading part of the narrative, the reader remains puzzled as well. Maud’s family are helping her with her day-to-day life, but there are struggles on both sides: Maud fighting to retain her freedom and to solve this mystery about Elizabeth, her family fighting to keep Maud “safe” by getting her moved to an assisted care home. Kudos to her daughter (Maud’s caregiver) for being so kind and patient.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets enmeshed into this complex maze where past and present fuse together, where reality and dreams are intertwined, and where it’s just plain hard to know what is what.

And then, to add a third string to the narrative, a third story is added of a vague memory of Maud’s about something that happened 70 years ago. It’s in the flashbacks to the past where Maud gets to shine as she has no trouble recounting her earlier life when she was a child and her sister Sukey went missing. Was Sukey murdered? Did she run away?

This intriguing interplay of time and reality, between clear details of the past and murky details of the present creates a tension of sorts for the reader, and I loved it. It was very hard to put the book down, and when I did, I ended up thinking about Maud and her life.

I think that you’ll love this if you’re ok with unreliable narrators and books that have multiple strings going on with their plots. I’d suggest reading this one in big chunks to keep up, but don’t worry. It reads very quickly due to some excellent writing. Healey is an expert with using language at its best and making Maud someone who you care about.

Loved it.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande (2014)


“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes

are what matters most.”

Passing by the New Release shelf at the local library, I quickly noticed a new title out by Dr. Atul Gawande, one of my fav authors and an experienced surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He’s also an excellent writer who has often published medical-related essays in places such as the New Yorker and elsewhere. He’s also written a few other titles, all with a medical connection and mostly very good. (I’d class his “Complications” title as excellent really. You should check him out if he’s a new author to you.)

This new title focuses on human mortality and the role that medicine plays in the lives of aging Americans and then death. Medicine can do many things, but its main role has developed over time to sustain life through addressing medical problems. And you know, medicine is very good at that. However, with medicine being an art (as opposed to a science with a definite right and wrong answer), physicians are not always so skilled with squidgy end-of-life issues (including the dying process prior to death).

This sounds such a morbid and depressing book, but Gawande takes a very serious topic and asks tough questions (of himself and of others): When should expensive medical approaches stop if a patient is terminally ill? Who should decide that point and when? Is it the doctors? The family (especially if the patient is very ill and unable to voice concerns)? The patient him- or herself (if it’s possible at that point)?

Obviously, it should be the patient in question, but end-of-life issues can be extremely difficult to talk about for the many players in that situation. It can be frightening and confusing for everyone involved, but I totally agree with Gawande when he writes that this tough conversation should be a normal part of the living (and dying) process. That’s where physicians need to be in a leadership capacity, not in telling families what to do but in finding out what the actual patient wants. Does s/he want endless life-saving measures at the end point? Or just relieve the pain and suffering?

By taking real-life cases of patients (terminal and otherwise), Gawande talks us through the decision process of how the medical world treats terminal and elderly people. Medicine can prolong a life for much longer than perhaps is best for the patient, but what does the person in question really want? That is where the hole is in most medical care – there is often little consideration of what the patient in question really wants — what is important to them and not what their family members (or their health care team) want. It gets complicated for everyone unless someone skilled in the dying process can jump in and ask the right questions.

This is not an easy book to read, but it’s so helpful as it normalizes the aging/dying process for millions of Americans. A lot of people have prepared for their actual death with wills and other legal documents signed and in the lawyer’s office. Where there is often a gap is the actual process of dying: the months/weeks/days when one slowly loses one’s health. (Gawande calls this the ODTAA Syndrome: One Damn Thing After Another when a person’s health starts to fail like dominoes.) Some people will, of course, die suddenly but millions of people will have a long journey ahead of them in the dying process, so Gawande also addresses the cultural treatment of the elderly and the infirm with regard to assisted living, nursing homes, and the tough battle it can be when adult children take over the decision-making process and players disagree about the next steps. It’s a debate between the issues of safety and happiness. Which is more important?

A very provocative read for me. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2001, and as I had a fairly weird type of tumor, it took a good six months to get a correct diagnosis and then a plan of action. The following six months (and the following treatment) pretty much changed my life on several levels, one of which was addressing and accepting my mortality. (Well, we all will die, really, but pancreatic cancer has an extremely high mortality rate so this had to be addressed. However, it’s not always easy to start the discussion.) BTW, I’m all good and fine now, and I have a “new” normal in my life now – I’m very happy that I have this chance.

Knowing that it was quite possible that I could be dead by the end of the year changes one’s perspective and forces one to live more in the moment: life is made up of small moments so how to make sure those little things are good? I’m not going to go all Deep and Meaningful on you, but suffice to say, Gawande’s book contains much needed timely advice for everyone, sick or not. When your loved one is in the ICU intubated is not the time to have these dialogues.

Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym (1977)


One of the more well-known Pym volumes, this was the gentle read that I was looking for. This follows the intersecting lives of four late-middle-aged people who have worked together in an office for a few years. They’re around the same age, and when one of their loose group retires, it throws new dynamics into the mix. Two men, two women – and the only thing that they have in common with each other is working in the same office. However, even with such differences, the small group find that, when two of the group retire, they have more overlap than they realize.

So, this fairly straightforward narrative touches on several issues really: gender, aging, small group interaction, loneliness, friendship. And surely the title reflects the stage of life of this small group are in… As one of my friends describes Anita Brookner’s characters: “It’s very beige”… 🙂

However, despite the beigeness, the story sucked me in and I read very quickly. (Partly because it’s a very short book – novella? – but also partly because the narrative is so well written, it’s a pleasure to read at the same time.)

For example, this description is perfect:

“…her hair straggled in elf locks…”

And then there’s this one… The set-up for the scene is that the characters are finishing their lunch at work one day…

“Jelly babies [the normal end of the meal] being in short supply, [he] offered a packet of licorice all-sorts and [the friend] selected a brown and black one.”

The level of detail was fascinating and was a great tool to reflect the importance of small things in these somewhat small lives that the characters live. (I also love Jelly Babies (UK sweetie) and it’s not often that they are mentioned in books!)

Another example – this time, another character is offering someone some dessert after a small disagreement at the table:

“Now, what about some ice cream?” he asked in a soothing tone, feeling that ice cream might act like oil on troubled waters and pacify the angry [friend] more effectively than any words of his…”

It was definitely the writing that made the book so very good. Pym was an expert at tiny nuances and this works as a perfect foil to showcase her characters and the minutiae (important though it is) of her characters’ lives.

Poignant and thoughtful, this was a good autumnal read.

Annie Dunne – Sebastian Barry (2003)


This short and dense novel is set in 1959 rural County Wicklow in Ireland on a small farm (if it’s big enough to be called that), and follows the life of one Annie Dunne, a spinster who lives with a distant cousin out in the countryside. Annie’s life is completely overshadowed by the insecurity of her living conditions, dependent as she is on her family’s charitable impulses to provide a safe home and living for her.

Living as she is with fairly distant cousin Sarah Cullen, life has been fairly calm for some time, but when Annie’s young niece and nephew come to live with the two women one summer whilst their parents relocate to London, new and uncomfortable life wrinkles arrives on the doorstep. Sarah is also being courted by a man from the nearby village, a man who Annie views as unsuitable, so as the summer continues, life in this small country cottage reaches a turning point, and changes everyone’s lives.

The novel is written in present tense from a first-person narrative (that of Annie), and by utilizing this structure, Barry adds a constant pressure of immediacy to the narrative. Things seem to be off-balance and threatening to the main character and this pressure builds up as the summer progresses. You just know something is going to happen… but what will it be?

This is a narrative where nothing much seems to happen on the surface, but looking underneath the veneer shows unexpected depths for these characters who live simple but complex lives. Annie adores looking after the visiting children, but even they have an uncomfortable deep side to them at times, and loving them with such intensity opens to the door to being hurt at the same time. Annie, herself, is a much more complex character than might be expected, but is extremely human at the same time. She might not be one of my favorite characters, but she’s definitely one of the more memorable just because she’s so realistic in how she reacts to the ever-changing world around her.


Barry is a poet and playwright, but has focused on novel-writing in more recent years. (You can tell his familiarity with stage by his effective dialogue and it’s obvious he knows what works.) His writing is lyrical, poetic, and dense and I had to slow down to read it and enjoy it. It was fantastic word engineering and seems to capture the Irish dialect in just the right manner – I could hear the characters as they spoke their dialogue. Various sources report that Barry is considered “one of Irish’s finest writers”, but of course, so did the fans of William Trevor (Felicia’s Journey) and numerous others as well. Irish or not, Barry is a very good writer.

For example, here is a description of how it felt for the main character to endlessly churn milk until it turned into butter:

“And all the while there is that clean, clear smell, that remembers everything in the making of the butter – the meadow, the mouths of the milch cows, their secret stomachs, the grass wrenched from their green selves, the milk in the soft warm udders, the odor of inside skin – all perfect and mixing together into one laden smell, a smell that in its nature is the very opposite of mold and rot, that makes the dairy ring like a guitar…”
“And that is a great moment, a moment of strange stiffness after long labor, and a releasing moment, and it is how I am sure the butterfly feels when at last it breaks from the discarded caterpillar, drying its wings and easily flying to become that graceful thing. And there is a grace in butter, how can I explain it – it is the color we all worship, a simple yellow gold….”

Barry has written quite a few novels, some of which have been in the running for the Booker Prize and others. Although I haven’t read any of his other publications, research shows that Barry tends to connect different books with characters drawn from previous plots and from real life, and in fact, the patriarch in this short dense novel is based on the real-life maternal great-grandfather James Dunne who served as the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police from 1913-1922 and oversaw the area surrounding Dublin Castle. (The father of main protagonist Annie has a similar life trajectory in this novel.)

Here is a brief description of the father of Annie, a man who ran the B Regiment of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and who, at the end of his life, developed Alzheimer’s (or similar) and ended up in the county mental hospital:

“It was all too bleak, such a resplendent man, with his uniforms, his bulk, and his habit of command, as he called it, reduced to an ember of that fire, one coal in the grate, one fragment of coal, barely showing in the darkness…”

Although this is a short novel, it’s very dense writing which is lyrical at the same time. To rush reading this would be to risk missing the turns of phrase and the descriptions of living in the countryside, and as “nothing much seems to happen” plot-wise, I think you’d miss a lot. (I imagine that Barry has been compared to poet-writer John Banville (who wrote The Sea), but I liked Barry more – he wasn’t so concerned with impressing the readers with his vocab knowledge, although both writers use a similar style in some other ways.)

Good read from the TBR pile. (Someone somewhere must have recommended it at some point, but not sure who. Thanks whoever that was.)

Winter Wheat – Mildred Walker/ The Southwest Corner – Mildred Walker


Mildred Walker is a new-to-me writer and somewhere somehow I came across her name on the interwebs. She is not a writer who seems to come up much in conversation, which is a shame as her work is very good and she deserves to be read more than she is right now. As the Philadelphia Inquirer once wrote, “You are either a Mildred Walker enthusiast or you are missing one of the best writers on the American scene…”

Walker wrote quite a large number of books, and I happened to pick up “Winter Wheat” (1944 about rural life in Minnesota) and then “The Southwest Corner” (1951) about an older woman who lives on the East Coast and is trying to decide how she should spend her end days. (Sort of a more likable version of Hagar in “Stone Angel”…)

“Winter Wheat” seems to be the title that pops up most commonly, but all twelve novels in her oeuvre have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press so there are other titles available out there. She has been compared with Willa Cather for her “prairie” writing, but from what I can tell, she covers a lot more territory than prairie in her travels across the world of fiction. So let’s look more closely at the two that I have read.

Winter Wheat is set in the rural world of early Minnesota in a small farming family who have homesteaded there. It’s very close to the outbreak of WWII and the uncertainty that comes with that, it’s not been that long since the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head in the Midwest, and Ellen Webb is hoping to go East to college (depending on the fortunes of that year’s farm crop). This is a bildingsroman novel , although this one seems to have a bit more bite to it than most. Ellen travels to college (a long train journey for this small town character) and whilst at school, meets another college student boy and they fall in love. Gil (the boyfriend) is invited out to the farm over the summer, but things don’t go as planned and by the end of the visit, things between the couple have changed.

Gil gives Ellen a new awareness of her home life – how far removed they are from “cultured” life on the East coast, how her parents have an ongoing prickly love-hate relationship with each other, and how close the family is to poverty. Gil’s perception impacts Ellen and so, when he leaves, there is a wake of dissatisfaction for Ellen in how she views her family’s world. It’s only as the summer progresses that Ellen learns to accept how things are and gradually moves on.

This is a bittersweet novel of how strong emotional ties can between family members and how easy it is to put your own ideas onto the lives of others. It’s also heavily tied up with the rural metaphor of wheat and its growth cycle in the harsh world of this dusty treeless world they live in. (This metaphor gets a bit clumsy at times, but it works overall.) Walker lived for a number of years in Minnesota as her husband worked as a physician, so I think she was quite familiar with the geography of the area.

The second novel that I read by Walker was still focused around gender roles and choices, but this time from the perspective of an older woman in Vermont who lives in a rural removed house but is considering what to do as she continues to age. Should she get someone to live with her as a companion and help? Should she move? I liked this title more than Winter Wheat, mainly because the protagonist was more likeable, really.

It’s also very relevant to the problems of aging today – how do you balance your independence with your aging and the need to have elder care? The main character, Marcia Elder, decides to advertise for a companion and gets one with decided opinions. As Marcia has her own opinions (but tends to keep them to herself), the story turns into more of a “coming of age” event as well, although of a different kind.

Elder’s growth comes through learning to stand up for herself (even in the face of impressive opposition). It’s a good story, and there were some fantastic descriptions of life in Vermont. It’s also very expressive in its depiction of aging and all that goes along with that stage of life. (”The Southwest Corner” title refers to the corner of most houses facing a certain way when the elders of the family would live in the southwest corner as that had the most sun and was warmest in the long winters.)

Walker was quite surprising for her time – she graduated top of her class from Wells College in Aurora, NY, in 1926, and went on to earn her Master’s degree in English Lit from the University of Michigan. She and her husband moved to Montana in 1933 and that’s when she started published her books.

It’s interesting, to me, to consider her life out on the plains in rural Montana as she sat in the car writing and waiting for her husband to complete his house calls. I wonder what her career plans would have been if she had lived in a later day and age when gender roles were more flexible than they were back then. Interestingly, when her hub died (in 1955), she moved back to Wells College and became a professor of creative writing, and in 1960-1961, she was a Fulbright Lecturer in Kyoto, Japan.

I have enjoyed reading Mildred Walker’s work and will pick up more at a later point. Thanks to whoever it was who pointed the way to her. I appreciate it.

How to Make an American Quilt – Whitney Otto (1991)

Book Quilt AmI just loved this short read. I hadn’t read it for years, and was curious if the reread would be as good. Would it hold up? Why yes, Virginia, it did, and with the experience of older age comes a different reading.

The book is from the PoV of an adult granddaughter who is visiting her grandma one summer just before she (the granddaughter) gets married. As they while away the long hot days in this small Northern California town, there are lots of observations drawn about people and life through the quilting bee that meets regularly at the grandma’s house.

The book is structured with alternate chapters, one chapter being more or less straight narrative about one of the women friends and their relationships, and then the next chapter being a “how to” quilt instructive chapter, but with a lot more to it. The how-to chapters progress from how to start making a quilt to how to store one at the end, and mirror the growth of a relationship, regardless of whether that is a familial one or one that is more romantic in nature. It’s really well done – subtle and understated.

As others have previously noted, the book structure is a patchwork pattern that echoes the regularity of a more traditional quilt pattern, and although it’s probably been done before, this was done very well. Finn Bennett-Dodd, the visiting granddaughter, is one of the quilting bee that summer, and as the heat of the sun is repeated every day that endless summer, so are the stories of the circle of friends – the wrenching heartbreak, the stitching together of friendship, and (you know I can’t resist the ongoing metaphor) the tapestry of life.

This is a quick summery read, but not without its depth. One of the characters loves swimming and diving and that is similar to how this reading experience was for me – you jump up off the diving platform and then you sink in the story as you’re engulfed into the water, not coming up until it’s the end and you have to breathe.

For a slightly different take on quilts (this time more of a fiber art take), check out these quilts (and the fascinating backstory) of the quilters of Gees Bend, a small African-American hamlet in Alabama whose innovative quilt designs have been displayed at prestigious venues and various art places around the world. (Article from Smithsonian magazine.)

The Clothes They Stood Up In (1996) / The Lady in the Van (1994) – Alan Bennett

Two novellas written by playwright and author Alan Bennett which both showcase his sense of humor and his gentle handling of people’s odd foibles and habits. I had read Bennett’s autobiographical work of letters and essays last year or so, and had enjoyed it although the name-dropping was wasted on me as I was not familiar with most of them. It was in that book (Writing Home) that there was the first mention of The Lady in the Van.

Bennett must have had a heart of pure gold to allow curmudgeonly Miss Shepherd (the namesake of the van story) to live in her rickety old van permanently for years in his own driveway in London. I think that the original agreement for her and her van/home to stay there must have been somewhat impulsive and occasionally regrettable as she was filthy and rudely eccentric. His neighborly heart must be bigger than mine. I wonder how his neighbors felt about this act of generosity?

This novella, The Lady in the Van, is an entertaining collection of Bennett’s diary entries over the fifteen years she lived on his property and she was quite the character. Bennett does a great job of describing the ongoing mix of charitable intentions and unutterable frustration this neighbor caused in his life, but regardless of what obstacles she raises, he continues in a vein of kindness. Not a God-like level of kindness, but just an ongoing sweetness of spirit that I can’t imagine having myself for this woman. (She was a very cantankerous woman who had unexplainable and unchanging filthy habits not helped by the fact that she elected to live in a space that was without plumbing or electricity.) When she eventually died, it was received by a perfectly understandable mixture of relief and grief for Bennett.

The other novella, The Clothes They Stood Up In, concerns the fictional story of a middle class middle-aged couple who, after having lived in their flat for 35 years, come home after an evening at the opera to find that every single thing they had previously owned had been stolen — everything from the silver tableware to the box of matches and the casserole that was cooking in the oven.

Bennett is very skilled at describing characters and writing their thought processes so that I, as the reader, really felt as though I would know these people in real life – the husband, a staid solicitor with conservative views and a quiet subdued wife who takes everything at her husband’s word. Their differing reactions to the burglary and how it changes these two individuals was well described and although the explanation about the robbery was somewhat contrived, the ending rang very true for me.

Bennett is a master writer and it is not surprising that he has been recognized with numerous awards. He seems to have an affinity for damaged characters, but perhaps it’s more of a fondness for the human race as aren’t we all damaged in some way really?

A funny and poignant read.

The Diaries of Jane Somers – Doris Lessing (1984)

This little nugget really does tick all the boxes to please me:

  • Epistolary
  • Superbly written and edited
  • Realistic characters

I can’t remember where I read about this book, mostly likely on a book blog out there in Blogging Land, but on a whim, I found it at my library and dug in. It’s the story (in two parts) of Jane (or Janna as she prefers), a mid-life 50-ish professional magazine editor who is very happy living her own single life when she happens across an elderly lady one day at the chemist/pharmacy in town. Janna ends up getting pretty involved with Maudie Foster (the elderly lady) who is remarkably prickly and unhappy and difficult (just as Janna can be, really), and so this diary describes Janna’s life and the overlap with Maudie.

It was really very reminiscent of Margaret Laurence’s Canadian classic, “Stone Angel”, in that there is a strong, feisty and somewhat difficult older character whose behavior is puzzling/annoying until you, as the reader, are allowed to see what she is thinking and then you can see where she is coming from. It’s also rather a poignant novel in some ways, as both Janna and Maudie end up needing each other’s friendship but both insist on pushing each other away when really that is the last thing they actually want to do. All very complicated, but I am sure that we will all know someone like this at some point during our lives. It’s a bit like trying to hug a porcupine.

I think the best way to enjoy this densely written novel is to sit down for a long period of time and just dig in and immerse yourself in the story and the characters. It’s not that the story is hard to follow (because it’s not), and it’s not that there are loads of endless characters (because there aren’t), but by sitting down and submerging yourself in their world, it feels (to me) as though I really know these women and that I could go visit them for a cuppa if I wanted to. That’s how good the writing was.

The first half of the book is called “The Diary of a Good Neighbor” and is a nod to the charitable person who is called a Good Neighbor who is someone who voluntarily pops into to check on an elderly person who might not have anyone else to do that. For the elderly characters here, the Good Neighbor is seen as someone who is nosy and doesn’t have enough to do so they meddle in other people’s lives, and Janna gets constantly annoyed when people call her that title. The whole relationship that Janna has with Maudie is slightly off-kilter: Janna wants to help, but only within limits; however, as the story progresses, the limits change and she feels it’s beyond her control. (She! who controls all aspects of her life!)

Janna finds that it is hard for others to believe that she can be friends with the prickly Maudie. The push-and-pull tension between the pair of them is really well done, and made me cringe at times at how exasperated they would get at each other. Communication, people, communication.  Just say what you mean and move on. Sigh. A really good description of a reluctant but important friendship between two unlikely people who need each other.

The second half of the book is the diary of Janna as it continues once Maudie has died. (No big surprise there – Maudie is ancient and in bad health right from square one so you knew she is on borrowed time.)  This time, the book is focused on how a couple of younger women, nieces in this case, have an enormous impact on Janna and her life. Oh, and she falls in love with someone. (The path is not without its challenges for her here, either.)

In sum, not really a “feel good” book – in fact, it can get quite uncomfortable in places –  but this is an excellent read all the same. You will probably enjoy this if you like to read books by Muriel Spark, Mary Wesley, Margaret Laurence, or any of that ilk.

Interesting website about Doris Lessing.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival – Velma Wallis (1993)

Life in Alaska can be challenging for the Athabasken Indians who live close to the Arctic Circle. Living off the land and leading a nomadic life would mean frequent challenges for the tribe – and when life got very harsh with starvation at the door, it was traditional to abandon the older weaker members for the good of the group.

This tale is of two such old women. It sounds very grim, but under the pen of this author, the reader is faced with the characters’ surprising (and admirable) courage and wisdom as the two elderly women vow to “die trying” to survive.

A short tale of some brave women who face tribal taboos to learn of a strength they did not know they had. A very encouraging read, especially if you’re looking for another perspective to balance the generally held stereotype that “old = weak and useless”….

From the ILL at the library.

On another (rather different) note, I do have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the reading of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E. M. Delafield, and only wish that I had got to it sooner. It’s exquisitely funny in places.