Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.

This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.

It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.

Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing.  They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.

After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.

This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.

So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.

At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.

There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.





The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought.


Two Weeks in Another Town by Irwin Shaw

What a shambolic mess of a melodrama, lacking all the good things there were to be found in the first Shaw I read.

I don’t read chicklit. But I have an idea that this is the boy equivalent. The men are the fall guys for the women – even when they are treating them badly somehow it’s supposed to be the men you are sympathising with, not the women. I guess that’s how chicklit works in reverse.

It’s a stinker.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

There are any number of reviews of this available in print media/online. But none of them mention how cross it makes you feel. This woman, towards the end of her life, having a relationship of sorts with a neighbour is told by her son after he finds out about it that if she doesn’t stop it, he will not permit her to see her grandson again. Amongst other things he assumes that the neighbour is ‘after her money’. And that money, after all, is really the son’s just as soon as his mother stops inconveniently not dying.

So she stops. Just like that. Says to this guy who is making her very happy and vice versa that they will be as strangers to each other for the rest of their lives. Ridiculous.

Yet the fact is that people do things like that in real life all the time. That’s ridiculous too.


How The Light Gets In by MJ Hyland

I’ve knocked off a lot of good books over the last couple of weeks including David Cohen’s Disappearing off the face of the earth, Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Despite this competition, I expected How The Light Gets In to be the star and I have not been disappointed.

Like Gail Jones’ Black Mirror, it’s a first novel by an Australian. The similarities stop there. How the Light Gets In is a perfect novel. Utterly gripping, with a creepy flawed main character who nonetheless engages our sympathies from the start and never loses them, it must be right up there with best first novels ever. It’d make a great movie.

Highly recommended.

Note: surprisingly the author is writing from experience.

Drama of a life less ordinary
By Brigid Delaney
July 19 2003

M.J. Hyland
35, writer
“I’ve never experienced writer’s block. When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m flushed. I get quite delirious.”

“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” wrote Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.

Melbourne writer M.J. (Maria) Hyland had a childhood that makes Frank McCourt’s seem lucky. But she says it “is not very interesting” and would prefer to talk about her debut novel, How the Light Gets In. So we steer clear of her early years – for a while.

Set in middle America, How the Light Gets In follows the fortunes of Louise Connor, a genius 16-year-old with a penchant for gin, chain-smoking and Russian literature.

Raised in a housing commission flat in Sydney, she escapes the squalor and poverty of her background on an exchange student program. Her wealthy hosts struggle to understand the behaviour of their wayward charge. She is complex and difficult, captivating and infuriating.

When Hyland sent the book’s first five chapters unsolicited to Edinburgh super-publisher Jamie Byng (who discovered Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi), she was an unknown Australian first-timer. After demanding the rest of the novel, Byng rang her back and said, “I want to meet Lou.”

Hyland makes it clear she is not Lou – even though she went on an exchange student program to America from which she was expelled for underage drinking. ‘I’d been drinking since I was 13,” says Hyland. “I was just a regular teenager who drank. Suddenly I was in Idaho and I couldn’t smoke, drink or hitchhike.”

It’s too easy to suggest that the book is mere autobiography, particularly when her early life contains the material for a dozen novels. Melbourne-based Hyland, 35, was born in London to Irish parents. When she was two they arrived in Australia on an assisted passage. Crippled by poverty, the family lived in “sheds, people’s backyards and caravan parks” around Liverpool and Cabramatta. Her father was “a hopeless alcoholic” and gambler who “was pissed all through my childhood”.

Unable to secure a lucky break in the lucky country, the family moved back to Ireland when she was four, and lived in a notorious Dublin housing estate where “the lifts were full of vomit and urine. It stank. It was an intensely rough place.”

New schools and new housing estates came every few years. Hyland recalls the family being “deeply impoverished”, though she enjoyed the “constant change” and “interesting people”.

It was only when she made one “really good school friend’ that she felt sad about leaving. She was 11 and it was back to Australia. The decision to return was made by her father when he came home one day – full of drink-fuelled hope and optimism – thinking this time it would work.

The boat docked at Fremantle and the family moved into a nearby migrant hostel. Hyland remembers living with “interesting people from Singapore and China”, taking a special bus into school each day with other migrant kids and having “gruel for breakfast”. Less tolerable was the heat – the kind of white, blinding heat peculiar to Western Australia that the pale Irish girl instantly loathed.

The family moved frequently in Fremantle before her father, on another bender, decided to pack them in a car and drive across the Nullarbor to Melbourne. They were “homeless migrants” but for Hyland it was “all pretty normal – not alarming. I liked all the drama.”

Hyland thinks it made her a writer, although her childhood was largely without books. She reckons that she read less than a dozen books before she was 13 and those she did were “mostly Enid Blyton”.

The family stayed in Melbourne – but not together. Hyland is estranged from her brother, now back in Dublin, and she says her father recently served time for armed robbery.

“He went into a 7-Eleven holding a sign saying it was a hold-up,” she says. “I don’t think he had a weapon. He’s not aggressive, but he’s got a gambling and alcohol problem.” She doesn’t feel she ever knew him, only glimpsing the man he might have been. “He was pissed all the time so I didn’t really know what he was like.”

Her mother was the strong one. Stricken by polio as a child, she was hospitalised from six to 16, “but she kept the family going. She worked as a secretary all her life. She’s an incredibly strong person.” Hyland struggled academically before being accepted as an exchange student in America at 16. The host family had a “house full of books” and the experience gave her the resolve “not to end up like my father”.

Back in Melbourne, she began elocution lessons to straighten our her accent and got a series of part-time jobs. She excelled at school and gained a place to study law at Melbourne University. After graduating she was offered a job with a prestigious law firm. However, despite the drama in her early life she describes it as “the pinnacle of misery” and “the worst year of my life”. She resigned but continued working in law.

While she did that, she helped found a literary magazine, Nocturnal Submissions, which she ran for eight years until 1997. But she is not sure if it was time well spent. “A lot of [the writing] was vile – utterly execrable. Too many people use writing as a confessional. Reading it does not leave you with the energy to write.”

Hyland now teaches creative writing at Melbourne University and is working on a second novel. She doesn’t have to practise law. Still, she says with some regret that her legal practising certificate recently expired: “Law gave me some structure … all these rules and internal disciplines.” But writing is satisfying in a more primal way. “I’ve never experienced writer’s block,” she says. “When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m literally flushed. I get quite delirious.”

As a writer, Hyland prefers to be known by her initials to escape the constraints of gender. She is also ambivalent about nationality, for her childhood has left her with a wanderer’s heart. “I might live in Manhattan or Edinburgh or Cardiff,” she says. “I think of myself as without nationality.”

How the Light Gets In, by M.J. Hyland, is published by Penguin, $22.95.

Best Australian Essays 2004 has a piece by Hyland in it, also about her life, and you can see it online here.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This has been reviewed a gadzillion times in the press and online. A few notes….

It doesn’t surprise me, having read a little of the background of this once I finished the book, that it was intended as a screenplay. It is sloppy as a novel and, as many have mentioned, once it moves to NY, the story really becomes a corny romance.

However, I am surprised to see it is considered chicklit, it deserves better. It is hilarious from that fabulous start: ‘I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.’ I can see why it’s described as that old-fashioned thing, a screwball comedy.

It is impossible to write a book like this without having to endure the moral considerations. Is it okay to write about weird people if one isn’t weird (perhaps the author is?)?. Is it a politically correct portrayal of Aspergers if the person does have Aspergers? Some people who deal with it at close quarters say yes, others no. I don’t really understand why books (etc) have to be scrutinised in this way, why characters have to be labelled, why they have to receive approval. This is a book about a weird guy. He is inadvertently funny. As the story develops it may be that he plays up on that on purpose, making him advertently funny. The situations are funny. They are described in funny ways. The author’s had fun. Probably his lucky proofreader had fun too.

The darn thing’s funny, really funny, most of the time. That should be enough.  It’s enough for me.


It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson

Do brutal climate and harsh environs inevitably lead to such stories? Auden is a survivor. The question is whether he will escape as well as survive. This is a grim story of abuse, alcoholism, dead-end jobs, petty town mentalities. But above it is a level of joy for the reader in the lovely prose, the simple, minimal way in which Petterson does his work. And surely the one will transcend the other by the end leading to something like a happy future. Auden’s a reader and in his heart he’s a writer. Could the author really leave the hopes of this young man and the reader dashed?

Maybe. I’m not going to give that away. Suffice to say I read this with my heart in my mouth, during the course of today. It’s short and very difficult to put down.

Petterson’s on two out of two with me.