Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 304 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I missed Ronnie Scott’s debut The Adversary when it was published a couple of years ago but having now read his second novel, Shirley, I plan on rectifying that situation as soon as possible.
Shirley is one of those delicious-to-read novels that is difficult to describe. If I said it was about a 30-something woman just living her life and navigating the complex relationship she has with her unconventional mother, that would make it sound dull — and it’s certainly not that. I picked it up knowing next to little about it and then I couldn’t put it down (sorry, I hate using that term but it’s an accurate way to express my relationship with this book).
I ate it up in just three sittings over the course of two days.
“Ate up” is a good term to use in this context because this book is heavily focused on food — the narrator is a vegan who likes to cook, and her mother, who lives abroad, is a famous TV personality who made her name through cookery shows — and there are delicious descriptions throughout. (As an aside, I note that in 2014 Scott wrote a non-fiction book about food called Salad Days, so it’s clearly something he’s interested in and knowledgeable about.)
Here’s a plan for an easy meal that can be made after a long day at work […] just cook a few different veggies, but cook them long and slow. I’d done this in the oven on a low temperature the night before […] and now I was heating them up in three of my bad little pots; because the point of the veggies was to be salty, soft and full of garlic oil, a little time in the fridge to marinate actually did them some good. In one pot was pumpkin, another smoked eggplant, and zucchini in the third, the last of which had been cooked so long and slow that it was like caramelised onion in its colour and texture.
It’s set in Melbourne — specifically the inner-city suburbs of Abbotsford and Collingwood — and focuses on the months between the summer bushfires that ravaged the east coast of Australia in late 2019 and Melbourne’s first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. But this is NOT a covid/lockdown novel, although it’s told from the perspective of someone looking back on the pandemic — “The past two years haven’t been too easy on anyone” — and how it changed people’s relationships — with themselves and others.
A quiet life
The narrator is an unnamed young woman who leads a low-key life as a copywriter for an insurance company. She’s recently brought her first property, a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a squat brick building, and has been allowed to hire someone to help her at work, so things are going along relatively well even if she doesn’t find her job fulfilling.
But as the year turns, a few things change her equilibrium: she breaks up with David, her boyfriend of three-and-a-half years (but they remain friends, helped partly by the fact he rents an apartment in the same block and they keep running into one another); her childhood home, ‘Shirley’ (of the title), is put up for sale; and a new neighbour, a successful female foodie entrepreneur, called Frankie moves in downstairs with whom she develops a tentative friendship. (Frankie, by a stroke of coincidence, is also David’s boss.)
The story charts what happens during this three-month period — there are parties and hook-ups (the woman has an on-off relationship with a “man in a band”) and escapades with David’s adopted cat Meanie, who is blind and diabetic and very old.
Overshadowing this is the woman’s relationship with her famous mother which follows her wherever she goes:
I have the same pink skin as my mother, the same dark hair, the same T-zone, the heavy brows […] the hawkish nose. […] On me, the nose is […] probably the one feature that makes me most recognisable to a certain kind of celebrity-minded person. When I walk into a room of strangers, I’m often my mother’s daughter; and while I do not consider it a curse to see the familiar sequence on people’s faces — recognition, complete awareness of who you are, disappointment that you’re not your mother, silent correction to normal, conversation with note of discord — I am aware that it falls under the general rubric of curses to look like one’s famous mother, only plainer.
The “curse” is worsened by the knowledge that almost 20 years earlier her mother was involved in a scandal that resulted in her fleeing Australia, leaving her teenage daughter in the care of a male assistant. The details of that scandal are slowly revealed over the course of the novel (it’s ludicrously funny rather than sordid), but it has cast a long shadow over the narrator’s life because she was the one left behind to deal with the consequences.
If I was to fault this enormously charming novel it would be that Scott ties up all the loose endings a little too neatly at the end and explains connections that might otherwise have been better left unexplained.
But Shirley is an engaging read with a dynamic female lead that makes a refreshing change from all the “sad girl” novels that fill the new release shelves.
It sparkles with great dialogue, believable characters, hunger-inducing descriptions of food and a vivid inner-city setting. Its interesting observations about love and trust, foodie culture, work-life balance, and the relationship between employers and their staff are simply an added bonus.
Now to see if I can find a copy of Scott’s earlier novel…
‘Shirley’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or Book Depository, or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.
7 thoughts on “‘Shirley’ by Ronnie Scott”
This sounds like fun. How did you hear about it?
Penguin’s publicity manager pitched it to me… normally I turn all these down, but this one sounded intriguing… and I wasn’t disappointed.
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My hopes were raised when I saw this book had also been reviewed by the Guardian in the UK. But the sentence under the review confirmed what you said about its availability: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/feb/17/shirley-by-ronnie-scott-review-finally-a-male-author-who-brilliantly-writes-women Grrr.
Oh, thanks for the link to the Guardian review; I hadn’t seen that. The BTL comments are awful, though, mainly men declaring that men have always written great female characters and completely missing the point that only females can judge that 🙄
Only to be expected ….
I had spotted this at work but was doing th3e whole male author/female protagonist will I/won’t I thing. Now maybe I will – thanks Kim.
I had similar doubts but the voice rings true from the very first line! I think men can write women and vice versa…indeed, many of the best female voices I have read in fiction have been written by men. I think Colm Toibin is a fine example of this.
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