THE UNKNOWN WOMAN
Author: Jacqueline Lunn
Vintage Australia RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
When people become parents, something funny often happens. They take on a new identity as “Mum” or “Dad” or “so-and-so’s mum/dad” and gradually, as responsibilities increase, their identity as a separate person blurs and erodes over time. It’s true. It can take years (if ever) to feel your “you-ness”, what makes you remarkable and different, again – if it’s going to happen at all, you have to work at it. And, interestingly, our society can be rather judgmental of those who work at it too hard (especially while their children are young)! It’s this loss of identity that author Jacqueline Lunn explores in her latest novel, The Unknown Woman.
Set in Sydney, over a day (with flashbacks to add context), the novel is the story of Lilith Granger, a 44-year-old wife and mother-of-two with a loving, hard-working husband, a nice house in a well-to-do suburb. Yet, despite lacking for nothing materially, she feels adrift, exhausted and utterly without spark. Somewhere over the years of raising her children, she’s lost herself. Before she became a mother, she was an actuary, gifted with numbers and respected in her working life; these days, she knows returning to the workforce would be difficult because times and technology has changed. At the back of her mind is the recognition that, with her skills, she would no longer fit in the profession she trained for, while at the forefront (if hidden from others), is her fear that she doesn’t really fit as a mother, either. Over this day, as Lilith awakes to find herself in a photograph on the front page of the newspaper, in a place she shouldn’t be, all her insecurities come to the fore and her relationships with her family and friends are laid bare.
Inside Lilith is a woman crying out to be noticed. She may not have planned to be photographed by a newspaper photographer, but her choice to wear a bright pink jacket that day could be seen as a sub-conscious call for attention. She doesn’t want her husband to see the picture (because that would mean questions and explanations about why she was in that place) and yet, she waits the whole day for him to notice it and call her. She wants her children and her husband to see her, really see her and get her, and when they don’t, she slides deeper into her void of invisibility. I can relate. I’ve felt that invisibility when it comes to teenagers – that desire to pull them closer as they pull away. However, when I feel that pity-party coming in to settle, I have to close it down: “You don’t like it? Then do something!” That’s what I wanted to tell Lilith – do something for yourself! And then I’d catch myself, thinking about depression and how it never helps to tell someone to “get over it” or “deal with it” … am I reading too much into it to say the signs were there for Lilith?
The story meanders along, referring to that photo in the paper numerous times before finally revealing what that was all about … readers would be forgiven for wondering what the purpose was, what the point of the novel was. I did. Then I told myself, is that the point? That we all become amateur philosophers at some point and wonder, what is the point of this life I’m living? No matter how much we try to live in the moment and be positive, I don’t think anyone is immune to wondering this at some stage. So, Lunn drums this feeling of pointlessness into the reader, highlighting the depths of Lilith’s feelings. While I can see this in hindsight, I think unfortunately it’s not a technique that’s going to work for all readers – I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers gave up, finding Lilith’s inner turmoil too much talk and not enough action. I persevered because I wanted to find out if Lilith gained some insight … or some help.
While this is a story about losing one’s identity, it’s also one about motherhood, and the questions and fears deep in our heart. What if I’m doing it wrong? What if I’m not good enough for my child? Lilith’s insecurities stem from her absent mother and lead to a lifelong fear of abandonment, as well as never quite feeling as though she knows how to be a mother. So she finds fault in others, such as her next-door neighbour, whose child-rearing decisions really bite at Lilith to the point of obsession. As a mother I’m not immune to those questions – in fact, they dig at me even more so now that the kids are older. Again, I don’t think any mother doesn’t question herself.
Thematically, there’s a lot in The Unknown Woman for women, especially mothers, to relate to in this novel such as careers, work-life balance, motherhood, women’s roles, parenting styles, identity and so on. Unfortunately, I think the story falls short in its telling and will miss the mark for many readers who want something to happen. As a discussion starting point, I found it good (one for book clubs, perhaps), but if you’re just reading for pleasure, it might not be right for you. I’m going to end with a quote from the incomparable Dr Seuss:
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” ― Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!
Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. My copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.
Bookish treat: Treat yourself to time to be you, even if just for five minutes.