The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

February 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Janice is on holidays this month, but Sonia Lee of Granny’s Good Reads who has been reading up a storm is stepping into the Wilder Aisles with more books to recommend.

I always feel comfortable reading Margaret Drabble. Perhaps this is because, as an almost exact contemporary, I’ve long accompanied her characters through their child-bearings, child-rearings and love affairs—and now share her preoccupation with ageing, death and the problems of longevity. In The Dark Flood Rises she contemplates with an amused but sympathetic eye a group of seniors on their final journey. First we meet Fran Stubbs, who inspects retirement complexes for a ‘Quakerish’ charitable trust. Fran is taking a home-cooked meal to Claude, her ex, who used to be a doctor but is now a chronic, selfish, demanding invalid living in some comfort with Persephone, his carer, and Cyrus, his cat. Cyrus likes daytime TV with the sound muted and Classic FM on, and prefers Claude to read The Times on his Kindle because the print version rustles and disturbs his nap. Fran’s friend Jo has sold her house in London and moved into Athene Grange in Cambridge, where she is researching Victorian novels about Deceased Wives’ Sisters. Teresa, Fran’s childhood friend, is dying of mesothelioma with ‘style and commitment’. Son Christopher is in the Canary Isles, and Poppet, her daughter, lives in a West Country house which is in danger of flooding because of the heavy rain that is the backdrop of the story. It’s not a tightly plotted story, but rather a celebration of life’s small potatoes, where we are drawn into the concerns of all these characters and end up wishing them well, even the selfish ones like Claude. I loved this book to bits and recommend it to all readers, young and old alike. 

Cousins by Salley Vickers is the story of the Tye family from World War 2 to the present. It centres on Will Tye’s fall from the roof of King’s College Chapel, onto which he has climbed illegally at night. Will survives with appalling injuries, unlike his uncle Nat, who died making the same climb a generation earlier. Cambridge perhaps attracts such thrill-seekers, though in this case Will and Nat were already ‘half in love with easeful death’ for other reasons—in Will’s case his passionate attachment to cousin Cecelia. The narrators of the story are Will’s sister Hetta, his grandmother Betsy and aunt Bell, each of whom brings her own slant to teasing out the enigmatic life of Will. Salley Vickers’ novels and short stories are always rewarding and Cousins is one of her best. 

I generally like Zadie Smith’s essays better than her novels, except for White Teeth, which she wrote at age 21. However, with Swing Time, her latest novel, she is at the top of her form. Two young girls from adjoining housing estates in London NW meet and bond at a Saturday morning dance class. The girls are both brown, the narrator (let’s call her ‘N’) having a Jamaican mother and her friend Tracey a Jamaican father who spends some of his time in gaol. The girls watch Swing Time, the 1936 film starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and try to copy the dance moves. N is no dancer but has a gift for singing ‘black songs’ with emotion, a talent she later neglects. Tracey, though talented, is wilful and ungovernable, while N has an aspirational mother who becomes an MP and ensures that her daughter goes to university and gets a degree. N then takes a job as personal assistant to Aimee, a ‘bogan from Bendigo’, but also an international pop star who has decided to build a girls’ school in a village in West Africa. For the next ten years N lives at a breathless pace, travelling with Aimee but always having Tracey as her centre of reference. Tracey, meanwhile, gets into the chorus of Guys and Dolls but never stars in it or in anything else. N and Tracey have been estranged for eight years but then meet up again. There are overtones here of My Brilliant Friend, but Swing Time differs in being full of social commentary and musings about the importance of community—where the emptiness in N’s life is contrasted with the fullness and richness of life in the small, poor African village. While N finds herself ultimately incapable of love or friendship, Tracey is still living in the flat where she was born and is somebody in her own neighbourhood and comfortable in her skin, while N never truly settles anywhere. My guess is that this novel will be read aloud, discussed in book clubs, lionised in academia and perhaps win the Booker. If you can get hold of Smith’s article Optimism and Despair in the New York Review of Books (try Dr Google if all else fails), you will find it illuminating—it’s the text of an address given by Smith in Berlin last November when she was awarded the Welt Literature Prize. Sonia

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