I bought Madeleine St John’s book The Women in Black on a whim at a Save the Children Book Sale about three years ago and it has sat looking stylish on my shelf ever since. I’ve pulled it out a couple of times, considered placing it on the bedside table, but something else has always caught my eye and it has been put back in its place, still splendid, but unread, with its little black dress on the cover.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. This is the sort of book you can sit back and revel in. It’s quick and easy to read – but that doesn’t mean it’s lightweight – it’s funny and the characters and setting are brought to life so vividly that you feel like you’ve stepped into the set of Mad Men, albeit with more literary flair.
What is The Women in Black about?
The book is about the lives of four women who work in the ladies-wear department of Goode’s department store in Sydney in the 1950s. I found Magda and Lisa were the most captivating of the women. Magda is a ‘Continental’ whose domain is the expensive Model Gowns department, over which she presides like a talk-show host with just the right amount of flattery, knowledge, charm and a unquestionable sense of who’s in charge. Lisa is a naive seventeen year old who lands her first ever summer job, helping Magda and the other ladies in the department. She has never heard of nor imagined that such a thing as a Model Gown could exist; her only knowledge of clothes thus far has been the infantilising and serviceable garments her mother knocks up for her on the sewing machine. Lisa has dreams – she wants to be a poet, she wants to go to university, she lusts after a very expensive gown coincidentally named Lisette and she even begins to imagine what falling in love might feel like.
The relationships between Magda and Lisa, and Lisa and her mother, are especially well drawn and there is that lovely sense that Lisa’s mother, while she might at first scold her daughter, is also learning about growing up – how to let go of a child, what might be left for a mother after a child is gone, and whether fulfilling her daughter’s dreams means losing the one point around which her life has so far revolved.
Other characters in The Women in Black
The other ladies in the department are Fay and Patty. Fay is, possibly deliberately, lightly sketched in – she’s an ephemeral presence in the department who has very little in her life apart from parties with all the same people, and trying to find a man to marry amongst all the wrong men who want to take her home.
Patty is married to a man who barely seems to notice her, until the night she buys a seductive nightdress, experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life and then wonders why her husband disappears the day after she finds the secret to sex which had been kept from her for so long. There is one aspect of Patty’s story that I felt was a little drawn out – I can’t say too much here without spoiling one of the plot-lines – but I felt it was fairly obvious what was going on with Patty at a point early in the book and that this aspect of her storyline could have done with less foreshadowing or an earlier reveal.
St John’s literary style
Madeleine St John’s writing was a wonderful revelation. There is not one spare word in the book; she entrusts the reader to understand everything about her characters from sparse but telling sentences, such as this exchange, describing Patty’s attempt to serve her husband Frank something other than rump steak for dinner.
“Whenever she tried to give him anything else, even lamb chops (‘There’s no meat on these things,’ said Frank, waving a bone in front of him) he complained. Patty didn’t care, she’d lost her appetite years ago.”
And in those few words – Frank waving his bone, and Patty having lost her appetite, we know exactly what their relationship is like and St John can get on with the story, having done her job of filling in the backstory of Patty and Frank’s relationship in just two sentences.
What more can I say? Women in Black was a wonderful surprise, and given the cover is
decorated with quotes from the likes of Helen Garner, Toni Jordan and Joan London, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so.
I reviewed this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s my fifth review for the challenge – halfway there!