Fiction – paperback; Counterpoint; 272 pages; 2014.
On initial glance, Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky appears to be a light-hearted novel about a young Australian rock journalist who makes a name for herself at one of the most exciting times in music history: the late 1960s. But there’s a darker edge, for Lola Bensky, the bright and bubbly 19-year-old at the heart of the story, is the child of Holocaust survivors and her life is governed by a particular kind of psychological trauma.
A fictionalised memoir
The story is a thinly veiled autobiography of the author’s own life. Brett was born in Germany in 1946 to Auschwitz survivors who later emigrated to Melbourne, Australia as refugees. In the 1960s she was a rock journalist for Go-Set, Australia’s most renowned rock magazine at the time, interviewing singers and musicians, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend, who later became rock’n’roll icons.
The early part of her ‘novel’ is a tantalising recap of her time in London in 1967 interviewing these major stars, followed by her escapades in America, where she covered the Monterey International Pop Festival and spent time hanging out with the likes of Mama Cass, Brian Jones and Cher.
But before the name-dropping gets too much, the narrative morphs into a much deeper exploration of Lola/Lily’s life in Australia — and later New York, where she settles with her second husband, an artist — and the ups and downs she navigates as a mother, daughter, wife and writer.
The novel largely pivots around her life as the child of Holocaust survivors. Interestingly, as Lola points out, “Australia had the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors per capita outside of Israel”:
Their children were the survivors of their parents. Quite a few of them were the product of an overly vigilant neglect. They had parents who noticed every pound they gained or when they wore their hair the wrong way, but they didn’t notice any sadness, any bewilderment, any loneliness or anxiety in their children. They didn’t notice any absences at school or money stolen or most other symptoms of a child in trouble.
For most of her life Lola has a problem with her weight. She follows fad diet after fad diet, constantly stresses that she is too fat and makes a concerted effort never to “look at herself below the neck”. She attributes her obsession to her mother, who says cruel things about her appearance, because she “hates people who are fat”.
“She was in a Nazi death camp and the only people who were fat in there were some Nazis and the few prisoners who were doing something that was helpful to the Nazis.”
Lola also wastes an inordinate amount of time having fantasies in which she is either scarred for life through some horrendous accident or dies from a ferocious illness. Again, she attributes this to her parents, and a deep-seated psychological need to rescue them from the horrors of the camps.
If you think this all sounds a little too heavy, think again. Lola Bensky might revolve around some dark and important themes, but this is nicely balanced out by a light, almost frothy tone of voice, and an undercurrent of humour. On more than one occasion I laughed out loud.
There are some very funny set pieces, too, such as this conversation with Cher and Sonny Bono:
“I think we look a little alike,” said Cher, looking at Lola. Sonny came back into the room. He hovered around Cher as though he was nervous of what she had been saying. “Do you think we look alike, Son?” said Cher, looking at Lola.
“Other people have said that,” said Lola. “But I always reply that I am twice Cher’s size.”
“I can see the resemblance,” said Cher. “Can you, Son?”
“No,” he said, looking perplexed. “I can’t see any resemblance at all.”
“It’s okay,” said Lola to Cher. “You don’t have to worry about looking like me. You look nothing like me.”
“You sure don’t,” said Sonny.
For other takes on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend and Kate’s review at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.
Update: Australian Women Writers Challenge
This review will count towards my aim of reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women as part of this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge.
You can find out more about the challenge via the official website.
This is my first book for #AWW2018.
8 thoughts on “‘Lola Benksy’ by Lily Brett”
I wonder if that was me, the ‘lady from the USA’ you mention in response to your book blogging colleague? From the UK not USA but a frequent visitor to Australia where I found and read this excellent novel. It stays with me (& I’m a prolific greedy reader). I recommend it to others still. It’s so much more than a rock stars I have met memoir. So many readers seem to comment on the fame of those mentioned, what I really appreciated was her un-starry-eyedness. They aren’t that important to her she reprorts on them as people she’s met including quite obliquely that they in their turn respond to her a person rather a jobbing journo. Everything is seen through the mask/veil of her parents’ powerful influence on her. I think her writing is some of the best I’ve ever read – many layered, very distressing and also believable. It made me care about the author as much as Lola.
Oh, maybe it was? I’m not sure. It is a really great book, though, isn’t it? I chose it for my book group and everyone, bar one person, loved it. We had a great discussion about it: the mix of light and dark; the down-to-earth nature of Lola and her inability to be starstruck; her parent’s trauma and the strained relationship she had with her mother; and the long-lasting impact of the Holocaust, even on people who had never gone through it.
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I know of children of Holocaust survivors locally (N London). They do suffer, a daughter had a very bad nervous breakdown, now has continuing mental health problems, while her very ancient mother soldiers on.
I was attacked/bullied when a young mum by psychotic neighbours. It happened every night for a period of weeks. I had to analyse what was happening to me very closely to survive it and realised the fear was the worse than the attacks, anticipating the time when it would all start and what would happen.I visualised the fear because it was so real and knew it filled all the space in the room I was in, every corner, every crack. I had to try to control my imagination, name what was happening to me, and be practical, I had a child as well as myself to protect. I truly wonder whther children of those who experienced the Holocaust have imaginations that run riot, out of control because their experience is so much bigger and longer lasting.
I’m sure I’ve read quite recently that scientists have found genetic changes in the off spring of such surviviors too – horrific.
WADHOLLOWAY’s rsponse above is so decent and compassionate
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Thanks for the mention. I thought I was buying my daughter a book about rocknroll – blame the blurbs – but is actually an important novel about the trauma that refugees bring with them. And we respond by locking them up!
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It’s a hugely important novel about what it is like to be the child of Holocaust survivors, a subject I’d not come across in fiction before. I hadn’t clocked that Australia had the highest number of Holocuast survivor’s outside of Israel, but it makes sense: you’d want to get as far away from the scene of such trauma as possible, would you? It also explains why so many Nazi’s went to Sth America.
This has been on my radar since Kate’s review. It sounds excellent, I saw a harrowing documentary about the children of Holocaust survivors and the legacy of trauma. It’s incredible that Brett has managed to bring humour to such a topic but it sounds like she does it in a very skilled way that makes the novel even more effective.