rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean, with thanks.

This novel follows the life, chronologically, of Lilian, who lives in Sydney, Australia, is born in 1901, and watches the city and herself change around her over decades. It is not a conventional life-- for one thing, Lilian chooses at quite an early age to be fat, and it is a conscious choice, because there are several dangers it keeps her safe from. The book does not judge this choice with any of the possible judgments, but simply recounts it, which is not usual in a novel. In fact there are several things about Lilian's life that are not usual in lives but are fairly common in novels, but there are also several things which don't turn up all that often in fiction, although I suspect they do in lives. For instance, she is homeless by choice at several points, which is something I have met in talking with people far more than I have in books.

It is apparently Kate Grenville's first novel, and I can tell. She is struggling with the form of a novel, which says that certain things are likely to happen, and persons are likely to recur, and possibly there ought to be something you can put your finger on as a plot or even just as a structure, whereas what she is trying to do is tell a story where there isn't usually story told, a story that does not have a shape and a form and a novelistic ending and a set of answers easy or otherwise. Often she attains a gentle compromise between what a reader might expect and what she would like the reader to actually get, and those bits are very fine: but it takes rigorous discipline to work to no form whatsoever, and if she had trusted her (unique, personal, unmistakable) first-person narrative voice to be its own propellant I think the book could have been finer still. This is not for example a novel that is best served by being told chronologically, because all the most conventional bits are together at the beginning, where she is trying to work against them as well as trying to use them to soften you up for later, and undermining herself both ways. But this is moving towards being the sort of book Virginia Woolf would have liked to see women write more of, and I mean that entirely as a compliment.

For she does after all have a good grasp of character, and a memorable narrator, and a sense of place in Sydney that felt plausible to me, for all that I was only ever in Sydney a week, but they do have those fruit bats in the Domain still, don't they. And she is trying to give voice within the reader to a woman who is literally the sort of person people avoid on the street because she is so embarrassing, and to show where the world and life have failed her heroine (where you would expect) and where they have not (mostly also where you would expect, but as I have said this is not a bad book, so also elsewhere). The language is good, too, purposefully unpretty and full of strong images.

I recommend this, then, if you're in the mood for a picaresque, or something set in Australia, or work by and about a woman that is trying to do something new (though not always reaching it). I should pick up something later of the author's, as apparently she was famous right from the beginning (this made her a name, and should have) and her other novels start talking about things like colonialism and have awards piled on their heads, and now I am intrigued.

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