Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

There is a well-worn expression that asserts that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. For me, a perennial loyalist, this painful adage is brutal in the transient honesty is foretells. Gently folded across the reason/season borderland, the tyranny of distance can be a cruel mistress. Many of us have suffered the loss of one who moves away. The distance can be as far-reaching as Spain or as close as Hobart, but the jabs of grief are frequent enough to be uncomfortably paralysing.

I recently lost a dear friend to geography’s greedy clutches. While the sudden departure was swift and unexpected, the emotional aftermath was clumsy, confusing and confronting. Time will be the great antidote; the simple, and yet only inoculation against the painful ennui of the gaping hole of loss. But those of us left behind are only one part of this dichotomy. Within the binary union, there also exists the one who leaves. They depart our shores for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

Brooklyn is the story of the one who leaves.  Eilis, a young woman unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, sets sail for the promises of the holy land: NEW YORK CITY. Eilis had no immediate desire to depart her motherland. Family and circumstance prescribe the vaccination against poverty and intergenerational languor. She tries, she strives and she thrives (mostly) in her quest to build her life in the globe’s toughest and most unforgiving city.

Eilis’ experiences are blanketed by the female experience. Her circumstances are uniquely felt because of her gender and, in many way, transcend the period in which this novel is set. I once overheard a mother say to her daughter, ‘always earn your own money, that way you’ll have choices’. This is indeed true. The feminisation of poverty is as omnipresent in 1950s Ireland and New York as it is today.

Tobin has a bonsai-quality with emotion and yet the haunting restraint is powerful. Eilis’ adventures are unsophisticated, simple and yet profound in their meaning. Her desire to move forward is inhibited only by the clutches of the past and bygone, guilt-imposed responsibilities.

So to those of you who leave, we wish you well and may only the best things come to you.

For those of us left behind, for whom the gaping hole will never be quite filled even as it does grow smaller, um, f*ck you geography.

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Like I Can Love by Kim Lock

Most Aussies, myself included, are fairly adept at the art of the sledge, particularly towards their fellow countrymen. Competitive banter is a national pastime: the State of Origin annual footy series pins New Souths Wales against Queensland (go Blues!), and don’t get me started about the whole Sydney v Melbourne thang. South Australia is not left untouched by good-natured deprecation. Good ole SA is a state I have only visited once mind you and I was fifteen years old! But you know, whatevs.

(In my well-informed view), I’ve often thought of the great state of South Australia as the state of serial killers and great wine (there could be a connection, I’m not sure). Like seriously, the wine is AWESOME and I would have tried, you know, all of them. The serial killer comment may be a bit harsh critique but hey, google “Snowtown” and you decide.

After reading this novel, I also find it the state of domestic violence which is not fair on SA but author Kim Lock uses the locale as such significant backdrop, it almost becomes a protagonist. I don’t know where to start. I don’t think I’ve used the word harrowing in any of my previous blogs and I introduce it now with ease. This novel is incredibly harrowing and it exposes the absolute effortlessness of subjugation and domination on the domestic front. Small and yet manipulative acts of control seep their way like osmosis as wife Jenna becomes subsumed by husband Ark’s scheming and domineering influence. The acts of control begin as small advances which increase with discombobulated regularity as it invades and settles into permanent habitation. It is excruciating to bear witness to this insidious type of abuse.

There are a couple of secondary and concurrent plotlines in this book but the stand-out is Jenna’s story and her descent into vulnerability that becomes emotional and physical depravation. I don’t think a book like this can ever be ‘enjoyed’ in the true sense of the word but it does provide a glaring lamppost, illuminating the reader to the sinister and dangerous world of domestic violence, the most devastating symptom of which is its concealment.

 

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

After a couple of false starts, I have truly emerged from my literary funk. The last two books I have read have been glorious and I have ploughed  through them zealously in order to reap the harvest after a long and tedious drought. There is nothing more fulfilling that devouring the sweet and succulent dessert of a great tome. And I am a greedy eater.

From a plot perspective, The Natural Way of Things had remnants of Emma Donoghue’s The Room and a splash of John Fowles’ The Collector for good measure. At the core of these texts is the story of the trapped and powerless. The seized are all invariably women and they are imprisoned, for the most part, for and by the trappings of their femininity. But to simplify the novel in those terms alone would be a great injustice to this literary work. There is a far more compelling message to be absorbed within its pages.

The Natural Way of Things is an allegory on the subjugation of women: the double standards placed on women and their sexuality. The tale at a surface reading is creepy enough. A group of young women are kept against their will in the harsh and unforgiving outback. Peeling back even the slightest layer reveals a treatise on modern constructions of femininity and female sexuality. The trapped women are a symbol for the imprisonment of the gender through time and the historical stifling of women’s voices. Women are soiled by the deeds they commit in the pursuit of mediocre existence and survival.

This book is brutal. And compelling. I never felt very comfortable like a wicker chair long past its used by date. Indeed, at times it made me feel nauseous as it revealed its true self to me. But this text is important. It sits alongside the essays of Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf and Roxane Gay and the seminal works of of Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson in its importance to the evolution of modern feminism. As International Women’s Day approaches on 8 March, it is timely to reflect on the movement to suffrage in the not too distant past and the current and contemporary struggles of pay parity and more.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

To co-opt a phrase from Oprah, it is not often that I have an ‘Aha moment’. That is not to say I have been completely bereft of epiphany, but it can be unusual to really and completely resonate with an author, particularly when it comes to the subject of feminism. I always find feminism difficult to both talk and write about because it has for too long been mired in controversy and is of course, incredibly subjective. Part of feminism’s problem, in my view, is that there is no over-arching agreement about what feminism is or what is should be. It if a self-fulfilling cycle that feminism perpetuates: it’s is about choice and therefore sometimes the choice is not to identify with it.

As an undergrad I studied in great detail about the first wave feminists. These were the feminists agitating for women’s suffrage, something many of my contemporaries take for granted. Certainly in the context of Australian history, there was much to overcome; the state sanctioned transportation of convict women to [sexually] service the men of the colony, the public jurisdiction of private reproductive rights, powerless legal standing both within and outside of marriage and inferior socio-economic circumstances.

These hard-fought battles were later overshadowed by the second wave feminists whose objective was to legislate no-fault divorce and further protect women’s reproductive rights and choices. Many of the second wave feminists developed a reputation, fairly or otherwise, or aggressive and angry posturing. These women were deemed misandrists and deviants. It was in the aftermath of these complex political and intellectual conflicts that women of my generation struggled with identifying as feminists. We want choices and we want rights but are less keen to wear the label of feminist as it was understood in the 1970s.

Roxane Gay’s book is a series of essays, part biography and part comment on Gay’s world view. I don’t have much in common with Gay in terms of background except for our gender. But I did find myself time and time again exclaiming ‘yes’ as I journeyed through her essays. I am particularly indebted to her articulation of feminism’s failings. She writes:

‘People do terrible things all the time but we don’t regularly disown out humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come’ (Gay, xiii).

Like Gay, I too resisted feminism for many years and have now embraced it in all its flawed and imperfect glory.

This book may not be for everybody but I believe it is definitely worthwhile. Gay’s dissection of popular culture phenomena is particularly engaging, particularly her analysis of The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Gay’s tome also gives some incredible insights into the world of competitive Scrabble (who knew?).