In 2009, I finally got around to two novels, from this decade, that I had been putting off reading. One justified my tardy reluctance while the other astounded with its depth and originality.
When Karen van Ulzen’s novel, Crowning Glory (Harper Collins, 2002), was billed as ‘revenge fiction,’ and promoted as he done her wrong, she gonna get the bastard back, I had no intention of reading it because genre fiction is not for me. The fact that the author is a colleague, who has been editor of Dance Australia magazine for many years, was not enough to induce me to read the book, billed on its cover as: ‘A quirky tale of love, revenge and hairdressing.’
Then, by chance, I came across an old review of the novel, which referred to the inclusion of ‘unnecessary asides’ about hairdressing history and the author’s ‘spare style.’ From this I deduced that the novel was more than a story about hairdressing and revenge, despite the pair of scissors depicted on the cover, and that it was cleanly written. Straight away I knew I had to read Crowning Glory.
According to the back cover blurb, Crowning Glory was about the ill-fated romantic attachment that the central character, Kathleen Lindley, a hairdresser, forms with a chef who lives in the flat next door. At 32, she has finally left home although she cannot escape her mother’s overbearing selfishness or the pall that her father’s death cast over their lives while she was still only a schoolgirl.
When I read the novel, I found, above all, a moving account of a mother-daughter relationship. That is at the centre of Kathleen’s tale, colouring her relationships with both her boyfriend and the memory of her father. The narrative, set in early 1990s Melbourne, is a present tense, first-person account with memories of the past streaked through it, like a complex, subtle, multi-tone single colour hair-dye job. It is serious, literary fiction, in style, content and broader artistic and critical ramifications. It is also a gripping read.
Recounting a terrible fight between her parents, while her mother was plaiting her hair with crooked results because of the volatile situation, Kathleen states:
That same evening I cut my hair…My mother kept one of those plaits – the best, straight one – in the same wicker basket with my baby curls. The plait is noticeably darker than the curls. Though still fair, it has definitely lost that inner sunlight, that untarnished sheen, that distinguishes the really blond from the merely light brown – Hazelnut Haze, say, compared with Purely Platinum. The plait is bristling now, like old soft twine. The baby hair curls around my finger like a child’s trusting hand.
She has a lock of Dad’s hair in the basket, too. It seems laughable, given how little he had of it. The lock is short and brown. It’s not a brown you would give a name.
It might seem odd, even ghoulish, keeping hair as tokens of others. Yet as a custom it has long existed…Hair is both a part of the body and an ornament; it can be severed without pain or harm and lasts for thousands of years without decaying, still in good condition long after the body has rotted into the earth…
Kathleen knows many facts because she found comfort in books at the State Library after her father died:
The library was my escape from the shop. I would tell Mum that I had some research to do for a school project. I’d inform her in the morning, just before I left for school, so it was too late for her to raise any objections…I could never look her in the face, knowing I was leaving her to an extra hour’s imprisonment. Sometimes she would begin to protest, but would usually stop herself. ‘Of course you must go. I’ll be fine, she’d say. ‘You must do your study.’ The thrill of my freedom was always soured by the memory of her brave face.
Kathleen responds to her mother’s domineering ways with passive aggression, mostly expressed only in her thoughts. Describing her mother’s favourite cookbook, she says: Mum likes this book not because the recipes are particularly good but because of its war-time frugality. Sometimes I think she regrets the war is over. She was born before the Second World War and, though she was only a young child then, the deprivation she briefly experienced seems to have a nostalgic pull on her. At the mention of war-time hardship her face softens and she gives a shiver of pleasure, as if at the sound of rain on a tin roof.
When Kathleen and her mother try to move an old washing copper, the mother suggests they need a man:
What about your boyfriend?” she asks. ‘Couldn’t you have asked him?’
‘I’ll bet. Lazy, more like it’
‘Yes that’s right. A lazy pig.’
‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ She looks at me more closely. ‘Don ‘t tell me it’s over already.’
I try to turn away but she grabs my face and holds it still, as she has ever since I was a child trying to hide my lies from her. There’s no way to avoid her penetrating gaze. I pull myself free and stand with my back to her.
‘I knew it,’ she says.
‘What do you know?’
‘I knew it wouldn’t last. I could tell from the beginning.’
‘How?’ My voice is sarcastic.
It was obvious. For one thing, you never introduced him. What sort of behaviour is that. It’s unnatural.’
I say nothing.
‘Anyway, men will never be interested in you. You’re too much of a mouse.’
‘Glad you think so highly of me.’
I have my back to her but I can tell she’s folded her arms in that I-told-you-so way. ‘You’ve got no gumption,’ she adds. ‘Look at you.’
This is the relationship at its most brittle and destructive but through the self-contained universe of Kathleen’s inner life, we are also allowed to see the outer reality and learn why things are as they are, not just with her mother but all the other people impacting on her life. In an era when people are still living with their parents and staying single longer than ever before in history, the novel also reflects one face of that social phenomenon. Kathleen is very different to the Biff and Happys of Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the Olives of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She belongs to our world and that interests me. The fact that it’s local is a big bonus; yes, there’s a big world out there but some fascinating things are going on in our immediate surroundings and I’d hate to miss them.
I have quoted at length, to give a taste of the novel’s quality. The work was published after van Ulzen submitted a portion to the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development and won, a fact also acknowledged in a gold seal on the novel’s cover. So, its publication genesis was in the realm of literary fiction and it bothers me deeply to think that with today’s publishing modus operandi of print, profit and pulp, works like Crowning Glory, which managed to sell 4,000 copies, possibly to annoyed and disappointed readers who expected those scissors on the cover to be used for cutting more than hair, just vanish. But, thanks to the internet, not entirely without a trace, and for that I’m grateful. It certainly raises many big questions that the literary community should be addressing in an era ruled by that ruthless overlord, the marketing monster.
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 and has gathered dust on my shelf since it was a hot best seller. The multi award-winning novel was passed on to me by a reader who was not familiar with Atwood’s poetry, just as I was not acquainted with her prose, which, for me, is tarred by science fiction genre associations. Furthermore, the tome’s 650 page thickness, together with the back cover blurb describing a mysterious death and “an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal” covering 50 years, set against “the backdrop of twentieth-century history,” spelt potboiler to me. That smothered some of my curiosity about the quality of Atwood’s prose, because content has always been more important than form, to me, both in art and in life.
The novel is structured as two parallel narratives. One is the first-person account of her life’s story by the main character, Iris Chase, whose sister killed herself by driving her car of a bridge, just after World War II ended, leaving a manuscript of a novel that she had secretly penned. Iris has the work, called The Blind Assassin, published and it becomes a bestseller thanks to the fact that the family is from a socially-prominent Toronto background. This narrative also includes extracts of journalism, some real, some fabricated, both intended to support the story’s chronology and historic background.
The other narrative is portions of the sister’s novel. This reads like a diary in which yet other narratives, offered as fiction that could be categorised as fantasy/science fiction, are embedded. The layering is that of a story within a story within a story.
You are never in doubt that you are reading the writing of a master. It’s all clever enough and mildly intriguing because there is so much elaborately and obviously concocted story-line. Furthermore, you want to know what the plot upshot will be, since you have invested so much time wading through the clutter of distracting detail, as Atwood piles on the paragraphs as if the book will be sold by weight and she needs the money to pay off a massive debt to an underworld financier. You do find out, among other revelations, why the sister killed herself and even why the real novel is also called The Blind Assassin. It was, in the end, only a potboiler and in hindsight, for me, the most fascinating revelation came after the novel’s conclusion, where Atwood acknowledges the help of 17 researchers, apart from her “invaluable assistant”, and five “early readers”, among others.
The work is far removed from Atwood’s collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto OUP 1970), which was my introduction to her writing. This 64-page book, also offers a life story, set against a historic backdrop but it is produced by the poet on her own, not only writing the poems, but also designing the cover and making the collage illustrations. Aside from the poems, the only other text, an afterword, is a detailed account by Atwood of how the poems were ‘generated by a dream. I dreamt I was watching an opera I had written about Susanna Moodie…’ Atwood had heard of this 19th C Canadian pioneer but had never read her books; subsequently, when she did, they disappointed with their ‘discursive, ornamental’ anecdotal style.
Atwood connects with Moodie’s personality and creates a new account of her life and experiences, charting them through the speaker’s observations. We follow Moodie’s troubled relationship with the harsh frontier landscape, more menacing to the European immigrants than the bear that frightens their cattle. Moodie, the omni-sentient oracle, leads us through her history:
I, who had been erased
by fire, was crept in
upon by green
lucid a season)
In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me…
(from Departure from the Bush)
Atwood’s Moodie absorbs her physical environment, finally merging with it as an interred corps. Moodie reflects on her impending death:
I will prowl and slink
in crystal darkness among the stalactite roots, with new
Fiery green, my fingers
curved and scaled, my
(from Wish: Metamorphosis to Heraldic Emblem)
Moodie’s cosmology of a powerful, all-embracing fecundity is offered as plainly as possible in poetry (perhaps it is possible because it is poetry?) in the concluding two poems:
god is not
the voice in the whirlwind
god is the whirlwind
at the last
judgement we will all be trees
I am the old woman
sitting across from you on the bus,
Her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;
out of her eyes come secret
the walls, the ceiling
Turn, look down:
there is no city;
this is the centre of a forest
your place is empty
(from A Bus Along St Clair: December)
The Journals of Susanna Moodie can be read in one easy sitting but gives you something to mull over for 35 years. The Blind Assassin takes days to read but it leaves you after 35 minutes. Only one snippet of the novel has stayed with me and that is the description of a woman’s garment frothing like billowing steam on hot tomato soup. The fabric must have been a warm-red chiffon. There were other bon mots moments, but most of them contrived aside from some pleasing descriptions of nature. The most engaging thing for me was the realism of Atwood’s depiction of her central character’s elderly self. It was old-age as felt from the inside. Atwood’s Moodie talks about the pull of gravity, about ‘balancing’ herself inside her ‘shrinking body.’ Her Iris Chase knows she is the shrinking body:
I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect – a stink of stale flesh and clouded, ageing pee. /Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step of a cliff. Each time I put a foot out, I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way under me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place./ Getting my clothes on helped. I am not at my best without scaffolding.
If only Atwood would write a novel about old age, that is something I would love to read.
Review of Crowning Glory: An old rock pig and a prim hairdresser grow up Rachel Buchanan
Something special from the master – Atwood reflects on the nature of being a literary writer today. A must read.