Good Reading : April 2009
word of mouth The Women in Black Madeleine St John R eclusive, waspish, chain-smoking and racked with emphysema, Madeleine St John decided at the age of 50 to write a novel: The Women in Black. Up until then the Australian ex-pat had supported herself with odd jobs in book and antique shops in London’s West-End. She went on to write three more books, one of them shortlisted for the Booker Prize, before succumbing to her illness and dying at the age of 64, in 2006. Her literary executor, the film producer Bruce Beresford, introduces this edition with a short chapter entitled ‘Madeleine and Me’. The two were classmates at Sydney University, graduating in a year that also turned out Germaine Greer, John Bell, Les Murray and Robert Hughes. The publisher calls this book ‘a neglected Australian classic’ that ‘you should have heard of, and read, but probably haven’t’. On its back cover appears high praise from the likes of Helen Garner, Clive James and Barry Humphries. The Women in Black will surely be remembered as a classic. Let me put all this information and accolades aside for a minute and give, simply, my own impression of this book: I was utterly charmed by it. It is set in the early 1960s, in Sydney. Lesley Miles has just finished her Leaving Certificate and is fervently hoping both for a scholarship to university and to win her father’s permission to attend. In the meantime, she applies for a Christmas sales position at Goodes, an upper-class chain store (a thinly disguised David Jones – where the women sales assistants did, and do, wear black). Here Lesley meets Fay Baines (‘thirty if she was a day’ – and unmarried), Patty Williams (married to the gormless Frank), the mysterious but kindly Miss Jacobs, and Magda (‘the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed’ whose ‘frightful Continental surname’ no-one could pronounce). During her weeks at Goodes, Lisa grows in stature and confidence and knowledge slightly but perceptibly, and her jaded colleagues learn a few things about life and love, too. St John’s portrait of 1960s suburban Australia is precise but affectionate; the dialogue, mannerisms and prejudices of all the women in the book are credible, and might even trigger nostalgia in those who remember the time. Her writing is superb: succinct and elegant. Sometimes I was torn between wanting to carry on with the story as soon as possible and wanting to re-read a paragraph for its beauty. With this book I’ve found the answer to the question of what to give my grandmothers for their next birthdays, what to give my best friend, what to give my mother and, when they’re old enough, what to give my daughters. ????? RG Text Publishing, $29.95 Reviewed by Sarah Minns A compelling slice-of-life look into the emotional territory we cover in our daily lives. Fans of Douglas Kennedy will love this new book by William Nicholson. A beguiling mix of travel, soul-searching and signposts, both philosophical and real. Beautifully illustrated with Janelle McCulloch’s photographs from across America. An extraordinary Australian World War II story, presenting a survivor’s account of Changi, the Burma Railway and Japan.