Review: Vivien Horler
Unbecoming, by Joanne Fedler (Penguin Books)
Grandmothers, by Salley Vickers (Viking)
These are two novels about ageing women, written by mistresses of their craft. They are well worth reading, although your enjoyment might be helped by being an ageing woman yourself.
But many people interact with ageing women – their partners, their spouses, their friends and their children, and Unbecoming, especially, gives insight into how women in their 50s and 60s often change and become somewhat mystifying to those who love them or interact with them.
Or as SA-born Australian writer Joanne Fedler says in her “Author’s Warning”: “You’ll declare that what you used to want isn’t doing it for you anymore; that you have changed your mind. The urge to empty your pockets of friendships, sexual orientations, expectations and life goals will make you feel like a nutcase. In the tussle you’ll regret the half century you’ve spent being polite, responsible and dutiful (as a daughter, wife, partner, mother, caretaker) and realise that, frankly, you’re fucking over it all.”
And at this point your second life begins, says Fedler.
Jo is married to Frank and they have two children in their early 20s. Jo is fond of Frank, but he is not exactly a soulmate and is he enough for the rest of her life? And the children haven’t turned out as she expected: daughter Jamie has won a short-story competition with an offering about a young woman who wished she’d been aborted, and son Aaron is planning to join the military.
As Jo says: “Neither of my adult children is comprehensible to me.”
Jo’s unease with where she finds herself prompts her to take a three-month sabbatical from marriage and motherhood, and she leaves Sydney for Queensland to work out where her life is going.
At a farmer’s market she bumps into old friend Fiona, whom she hasn’t seen in 15 years. Fiona has had a tough time – she has fought a battle with breast cancer and has recently lost her husband.
Fiona tells Jo it is nearly her birthday and, along with a handful of women friends, has planned a “sacred” silent walk through the bush to overnight in a cove she remembered as a child. Would Jo like to come too?
Jo’s not keen. She won’t know the other women, considers herself hopeless in the great outdoors, and isn’t a hiker. But she gives in when Fiona says sadly: “It’ll be my first birthday as a widow.”
And so they set off, a diverse group: Fiona and Jo, and then a Maori, an Iranian immigrant, a successful businesswoman, a British lesbian and a woman who’s awaiting the results of tests that could result in a dire diagnosis.
The silence of their hike is in stark contrast to the gush of talk that accompanies the rest of the trip. They talk about their lives, their partners, their children, their work, and their experience of the menopause. It turns out they all have had terrible disappointments somewhere along the way, but they are pressing are on, because what else can you do?
Little tensions eddy and flow between the women as they sit around a fire on the beach, but there is a lot of laughter too. And then a young German woman, hiking on her own, stumbles in among them, a woman the age of their children, who brings her own perspectives to the conversation.
The novel beautifully describes the Australian bush, the gums, the night in the cove, the stars and the plunging waves, but what is celebrated more than the environment and the sisterhood is the loving description of the women’s food. At the end Fedler helpfully lists the menu, which includes mango, cashew and ginger energy balls; olives stuffed with lemon peel; corn on the fire with toasted Aleppo pepper, sesame and coriander seeds; Persian jewelled faro with pistachios and cranberries; salted liquorice bread…
Grandmothers is not a new book – it was published in 2019 – but I found it in a bookshop this week. It is a lovely read, as one would expect from the inestimable Salley Vickers, author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, Mr Golightly’s Holiday, The Cleaner of Chartres and The Librarian.
The story revolves around three elderly women, spiky Nan, a poet who is teaching her grandson to lie; wealthy Blanche, who has fallen out with her son and so is deprived of the company of her two grandchildren; and Minna, who lives in a shepherd’s hut in the countryside and shares a joy of life and reading with her surrogate granddaughter Rose.
Over the course of a British school year, the grandmothers enjoy their grandchildren, even Blanche, who finds a way to meet her granddaughter Kitty without Kitty’s parents knowing. But before that, unhappy and drinking too much, Blanche takes to shoplifting, and is very nearly caught.
Nan, meanwhile, discusses with her grandson Billy the ordering of a wicker coffin, which she later keeps in the sitting room decorated with cushions, and occasionally lies in to contemplate her future.
And then there’s Minna, who’s heard that Rose’s parents are about to take her off to live in Glasgow, and who dreads the severing of their relationship.
One way or another the three women and their grandchildren meet, with the story coming to a head in a dramatic moment in Kew Gardens.
The narrative loops back to the grandmothers’ childhoods and forward to the childhoods of the grandchildren, encompassing the often prickly relationship with the intervening generation, the children’s parents.
It’s written in Vickers’s usual punctilious prose and is a delight.