2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #4

HOUSE OF MEMORIES, THE
Author: Monica McInerney
Penguin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The House of Memories“It’s true, isn’t it?” she said. “Grief is the most selfish of emotions.”

The above quote lingered with me after I finished Monica McInerney’s latest novel, The House of Memories. It really sums up this beautifully heartfelt exploration of grief at its most raw – it’s so true that when you are overcome with grief you cannot see that others are hurting too. At that time, it’s all about you. The House of Memories is about one woman’s painful journey through the stages of grief following the loss of her son, and its effect on her relationships with those who love her. It also explores contemporary issues such as blended families and depression, adding even more depth to an already emotive novel.

Ella is on the run. Blinded by grief and anger, she’s fled from her husband and family … her life as she knew it. She blames her husband, Aidan, and her sister, Jess, for the accident that took her son’s life; forgiveness is not a concept she’s prepared to consider. She’s confident that without them she can get on with some semblance of life – after all, they don’t seem to have had a problem with that. Especially Jess. She’s continuing with her drama, dancing and auditions, despite the tragedy.

In London, Ella is taken in by her beloved uncle Lucas, who invites her to work with him on a special project. His house, falling down, messy and filled with eccentric, super-smart characters, is one Ella has loved since childhood … and if she can’t control her life, at least she can get the house in order. Slowly, gently and with the right amount of push when needed, Lucas helps Ella to see that she is not the only one hurting and that forgiveness is a necessary healer.

Ella’s story (told in first-person viewpoint) is shared with diary entries from Jess (just as dramatic and explanation-mark loaded as you would expect from a budding actress), letters from Aidan to their son, Felix, and emails from Charlie to various characters. It’s a clever technique because it lets the reader see that Ella’s perspective is somewhat one-sided. Jess’s diaries are an interesting example of this – where early on she seems vacuous and me-me-me, it becomes clear that her diary entries are masking a deep depression. As the story progresses, Jess becomes more honest about her feelings, in keeping with Ella’s own progression through the stages of grief. Aidan’s letters are moving and poignant; they brought on the waterworks more than anything. As for Charlie’s emails, they added just the right amount of humour. I loved them. The Lucas-Henrietta-Dr Samson love triangle also offers a much-needed laugh.

Is it just grief that makes Ella detach from her family with such apparent ease? Through flashback sequences, the reader learns that Ella has never been able to shake her jealousy of Jess (and the perceived “abandonment” by her mother and father). This backstory gives the reader an insight into Ella’s complex character and why she could just up and leave. McInerney brings Ella through a difficult learning process honestly. While it’s clear she has her faults – she’s stubborn, she’s selfish, she’s prone to jealousy and she holds a grudge – the reader wants her to reconnect with the people who love her, who are waiting for her to return to them. McInerney’s characters are so vivid that you care about them all – you want everything to work out.

As a writer, McInerney is gifted – she knows how to craft a story that resonates and she knows how to bring characters to life in an authentic way. I’ve always enjoyed her books and I found The House of Memories utterly engrossing, moving and tissue-worthy. I loved it.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.


IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS
Author: Liz Byrski
Pan Macmillan RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

In the Company of Strangers“You can say, yes, I forgive you, let’s put it all behind us, move on, all that stuff. But how do you know if, deep inside yourself, you’ve forgiven?”

Lavender is regarded by many as a healing herb so it is fitting that In the Company of Strangersis set on a lavender farm cum retreat (Benson’s Reach). The retreat draws an intriguing, mostly unrelated cast of characters, each of whom has their own painful stories and secrets; the combination of the lavender, the isolation from their every day problems and the new people around them brings each one to a new understanding of themselves and their loved ones.

Following the death of Benson’s Reach owner, Catherine (Cat), Ruby and Declan are stunned by the news they are now co-beneficiaries of the property. For London-based Ruby, going back to Benson’s Reach, is riddled with anxiety and some “excruciatingly painful” memories, but she forces herself to do it “for Catherine and for herself, for their years of precious but severely disrupted friendship”. Cat and Ruby first met more than 60 years earlier on a dockside when they boarded a ship for Australia as part of the British Child Migrant Scheme. However, by the time of Cat’s death, they had been painfully estranged for many years; the realisation that the connection they once shared is now lost is more painful for Ruby than she had imagined.

Declan, the nephew of Cat’s partner, Harry, has also drifted away from Cat over the years. Embarrassed by his past, he avoids getting close to anyone, especially the aunt he liked a lot: “Catherine was too intense, her questions too probing, and although she never passed judgment on him her mere presence made him pass judgment on himself”.  Inheriting just under half of Benson’s reach (Ruby has the controlling interest) scares him because business is never something he’s ever been good at; he’d be happy just tending to the lavender, the fences, or the berries. It’s all a bit overwhelming, so when his old friend Alice calls, he offers her a job and a place to stay.

As Ruby and Declan try to get their heads around the business – and an unexpected music festival – they have to learn also to deal with other staff and guests, with an interesting mix of personalities and backgrounds. There’s 15-year-old Todd whose mother has left him behind while she lives it up in Bali with a new lover, surly and unpredictable Paula who is good at her job but has a toxic attitude, and Lesley, a Perth woman struggling to come to terms with her husband’s retirement. Minor characters like Fleur and Jackson round out the cast; their roles are smaller but still critical to the development of the major characters.

In the Company of Strangers is a character-driven drama filled with likeable and not-so-likeable characters, with forgiveness at its heart. The characters are all motivated by hurt – they either hold back because of hurt and/or guilt, or they hurt because they are hurt. Each of them is struggling with something they cannot forgive – whether it’s themselves, or another person. In Ruby’s case, she asks how you know if you’ve really forgiven, because the act of forgiveness often has to be repeated over and over. Healing is what they all need – whether they know it or not; healing is what they all get in some form. The novel broadly addresses issues such as mental illness, alcoholism and ageing, inter-generational friendships (I particularly liked this focus), but the emphasis really is on triumphing over adversity.

Byrski is adept at writing novels in which lead characters are older women contemplating ageing, feminism, women’s roles, and even beauty. This quote is sure to resonate with older readers: “She takes a final critical look in the mirror herself … it was worse in the past, of course, when she was young, when looking beautiful and desirable seemed so important, when it seemed to be all that mattered, when it could mean acceptance or rejection. But even at this age, when no one gives a damn how she looks, when lowered standards could be affectionately regarded as endearing eccentricity, it’s still there, this other critical self following her always …” It’s so true – most women have that inner desire to be thought beautiful and it doesn’t just go away with age.

Byrski has a knack for getting right into her characters, especially the women, and drawing out their inner thoughts and anxieties in a warm, engaging and relatable way. I really enjoyed this book – I’m sure it’s going to hit the spot for many.

Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.


IF I SHOULD LOSE YOU
Author: Natasha Lester
Fremantle Press RRP TBA
Review: Monique Mulligan

If I Should Lose YouAn intricately woven story of two mothers, If I Should Lose You by Natasha Lester is a story that will stay with readers not only because of its wisdom, but because of the questions it raises.

Camille is a nurse specialising in supporting families through the difficult decision to donate the organs of their dying loved ones. Her mother, Alix, is a gifted but uncompromising transplant surgeon determined to make it in a man’s world until her own life falls apart. And Camille herself is a mother to Addie – three years old, critically ill and in desperate need of the very organs her mother and grandmother work with.

The story begins with a heartfelt scene in which Camille interacts with a woman whose daughter whose daughter is about to be wheeled away for organ retrieval: “Her daughter still looks alive. She won’t be when she comes back.” It’s a raw introduction to Camille’s world – a clinical/compassionate fusion that mirrors her home life. Married for some years, Camille no longer loves her husband Paul. Instead, the couple co-exist with their two daughters, their life marred by the threat of losing one of them. The reader finds that Camille is also grieving the loss of her mother at a young age and is filled with questions she’s not sure she wants answered.

When Camille is asked to curate an exhibition of her late father’s work all her long-buried questions come to the fore. How can she miss someone she doesn’t know? Does she miss her mother or just having a mother? Did her mother care for her as much as she cared for Camille’s father? Did she want to die when he died, even though she was pregnant with Camille? Reading her mother’s diary prompts her to create “an exhibition of a life” – connecting the sculptures, paintings, words to what she thinks she knows – “the whispers, the secrets, the words that are lost on the sighs of an exhaled breath”.

Told through Camille’s present day experience and her “Notes on an exhibition”, Lester’s novel fuses art and life in a beautiful, honest and raw manner. As Camille knows logically and discovers emotionally, life is vulnerable. Loss is inevitable. The question is, how will you deal with it? Will you be lost because of your loss? Lost in your loss? Camille’s mother was. As her daughter’s life hangs in the balance and her marriage teeters, Camille realises that she could be, but doesn’t want to be.

If I Should Lose You is a profound and confronting novel worth reading – once hooked, I found it hard to put down. It’s available from good bookstores and Fremantle Press.

This copy was courtesy of Fremantle Press.


GIRL IN STEEL-CAPPED BOOTS, THE
Author: Loretta Hill
Bantam Australia RRP: $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Girl in Steel-Capped BootsLaugh-out loud fiction is delivered with relish by Perth-based author Loretta Hill in The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots. Although the headline provides a clever association to the best-selling Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, the novel bears no resemblance; rather, it’s an enjoyable romantic ride set in the Pilbara area of Western Australia.

Protagonist Lena Todd is a fashion-conscious city girl who thrives on cocktails, cappuccinos and fun. So when the fledgling engineer is sent to the outback for three months, she enters a world far beyond her experience. For starters, her accommodation is an aluminium box called a dongar. She’s surrounded by 350 men, who like the look of her more than she does them. And her new shoes are steel-capped boots.

Buoyed by a desire to prove herself, only one thing stands in her way: brooding, Heathcliffe-like Dan “Bulldog” Hullog.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s full of likable and real characters, including Carl, whose favourite word starts with “F”, and provides fascinating insight into the world of fly-in, fly out workers. It’s romantic without being soppy, it’s funny without being slapstick, and it provides readers an escape to an unlikely place – a construction site amid the red dust of Australia’s far north-west.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.

For more information about Loretta, visit Loretta’s blog.