Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.
The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?
Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.
Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.
In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.
The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:
He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?
I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.
Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.
The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.
All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.
Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…
Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.