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In Sydney, the Ladies’ Paradise is named Goode’s

March 21, 2013 37 comments

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.

St_John*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.

The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.

Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.

For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!

Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.

What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.

Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.

I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.

The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:

The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.

What is she? A cow?

The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.

All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.

You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.

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