I For Isobel by Amy Witting

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

  1. August 13, 2018 at 11:45 pm

    Oh, I have this one in my TBR. I need to read it, don’t I?


  2. August 14, 2018 at 9:23 am

    This is a new one for me, and I like the sound of it. Isobel’s upbringing does sound difficult, and I can picture her trying to make her way in a new life, but without the confidence or the social skills. Families can do a lot of damage sometimes. It’s good to see a string of Australian reviews on here and to discover some new writers. Hope you are having a wonderful time in Australia, Emma!


    • August 14, 2018 at 1:06 pm

      It’s a very compact book (barely 160 pages) written by an author who had to wait retirement to have enough time to write.
      I felt a lot of compassion for Isobel and Amy Witting avoids useless drama. She just describes a cutting mother, a father who was absent long before he was dead and a family that attached too much importance to what people might think. And on top of that, what they think will be spotted by others as inapropriate is actually not inappropriate at all.

      More billets about Australian lit are upcoming. And yes, this is a wonderful trip.


  3. August 18, 2018 at 10:00 am

    I haven’t got any Witting novels on my blog as I read them before blogging. (I recently reviewed a short story there.) But I love witting, and your examples remind me why – it’s partly because of that tone. I love her writing style – and of course with that the way she gets into characters’ heads.


    • August 20, 2018 at 9:17 am

      I loved her style too. She reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald’s tone in The Bookshop.
      What did you think about the follow-up Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop?


      • August 20, 2018 at 1:03 pm

        Oh it’s so long ago now, Emma, but I just like her writing! I’m sorry I can’t remember the details.


  4. August 18, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    I hope you read Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. It sounded like it might be a downer but I loved it. It’s a triumph.


    • August 20, 2018 at 9:17 am

      Good to know. I’ll download it.


  1. October 7, 2018 at 12:14 pm
  2. January 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm
  3. January 6, 2019 at 11:07 pm

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