Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 224 pages; 2009.

The late Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) first came to my attention when I read her debut novel —a rather delicious black comedy called The Women in Black — several years ago.

A Pure Clear Light, which was first published in 1996, was her second novel. This one is set in London — Hammersmith and Notting Hill, to be precise — where the author, herself, resided, having emigrated to the UK in 1966 (she was a contemporary of Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes — how’s that for a star-studded line up?) It could be best described as a domestic comedy, but its humour is tempered by pathos and an exploration of all the complications and chaos of modern life, which makes for a fiercely intelligent read.

Middle-class London life in the 1990s

Set over the course of around six months, it focuses on Simon and Flora Beaufort, a middle-class couple with three children — Janey, 13, Nell, nine, and Thomas, five. Their lives are comfortable but hectic — David, who directs and writes TV plays, is on the constant look-out for the next big thing, and Flora is busy running her own business with a friend importing and selling third-world textiles.

Right from the very start, we find out that Simon is having an affair with an accountant called Gillian Selkirk and they’ve been spotted having a romantic meal in a French brasserie by one of Flora’s friends. The story then rewinds to show how the affair began — and how Simon carries on his subterfuge right under his wife’s nose without her ever realising.

On the face of it — and indeed going by the blurb alone — you would think this was a story about a marriage falling apart through Simon’s betrayal, but it’s much more than that. The over-riding theme is the transitory nature of life and the need to “live in the moment”. This is brought home to Simon very early on when he wanders the streets of his neighbourhood while Flora is away on holiday with the children:

You could hardly live in Hammersmith without being all but overwhelmed with the realisation of life’s essential transience; the place was a monument to transience; and if there was a paradox, so much the better. Simon, in his family’s absence, had taken to walking in the long summer evenings: one walked for a few miles, and then one came to a pub; one had a few pints and walked home again, and went to bed. One walked down impossible blighted streets, past lovely, blighted houses, the motorway roaring overhead, the river coming into view, every transient item supporting a stream of transient life: their only absolute reality was their passing.

Flora, too, is ever aware of the passing of time and looks for solace in religion and spiritual growth. A lapsed Catholic — Simon, a non-believer, talked her out of it when they had first got together — she begins attending the Anglian church even though “she didn’t sufficiently believe in God”. She’s not quite sure what she’s looking for, only that something is missing.

Simon, too, thinks something is missing but can never put his finger on it. When Thomas takes up ballet and dances for him, he feels momentarily delighted:

‘That’s the stuff,’ said Simon. And he felt as happy as a person can ever be. Why isn’t this enough? he wondered. Why do we always want something more? How can this be?

A quick, light read 

If I’m making the book sound heavy, I don’t mean to, because there’s a lightness of touch — dare I say a transience to the writing? — which makes it a quick and light read. The chapters are exceedingly short — there’s 81 of them, and some are only two or three pages long — and most of the story is told through dialogue, which is short and snappy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

For instance, there’s a terrific (or should that be ‘triffic’? see below) set piece at the opening of an art exhibition that takes the mickey out of Australians in London, which had me guffawing over my Kindle. It relies very much on stereotypes, so it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the book, and because the author is Australian herself I think she gets away with it, but anyone else and I’d be feeling slightly insulted!

‘Gidday,’ said the antipodean amiably, ‘likewise.’
‘Well –’ said Lydia, ‘they’ve certainly got a crowd in tonight. Everyone’s here.’
‘Yeah, it’s beaut!’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance yet to see the paintings properly – so many people in the way.’
‘No worries; they’ll be up for two more weeks.’
‘Yes, I must come back during the day.’
‘You do that.’
‘Yes. Anyway, I do hope you’re enjoying London – but then I dare say you’ve been here before.’
‘Oh yeah, I have; it’s bonzer.’
‘Oh good.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been havin’ a beaut time.’
‘Oh, beaut. Oh, sorry – I mean –’
‘No worries!’
‘Oh good. Anyway – where are you staying exactly?’
‘Oh, I’ve got a loan of a triffic flat in Notting Hill.’
‘Oh yes, Notting Hill.’
‘Yeah that’s right – beaut place.’
‘So you know lots of people here, do you?’
‘Oh, well, I know a few. I’ve met some more here. They’re bonzer people.’
‘Oh, are they?’
‘Yeah, right; triffic!’

The story is also populated by a vast cast of the Beaufort’s friends and colleagues, many of whom only have brief appearances in the novel, but this helps create the very real feeling that both Simon and Flora lead chaotic, always busy lives.

A Pure Clear Light feels like something Muriel Spark might have cooked up with Nina Bawden or Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a fast-paced read, with a healthy dose of flippancy and humour to balance out the deeper themes — love, marriage, family, religion and the temporary nature of life itself.

This is my second book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my second for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published in the UK, but US and Canadian readers may have to search online for secondhand copies.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Hachette Digital, historical fiction, literary fiction, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Setting

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 208 pages; 2011.

What do you do if you’ve just finished a hard-hitting, quite brutal and confronting, and overtly male book? You choose something completely different — in theme, tone and style — to read. So, hot on the tails of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe I picked up Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black — first published in 1993 — and what an utter delight it proved to be.

Delicious black comedy

This rather delicious black comedy is set in F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store — rumoured to be based on David Jones — during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

There is Patty Williams, fretting away because after several years of marriage, she remains childless and she fears that she may have chosen the wrong man in Frank, who prefers to spend all his spare time in the pub. There is Fay Baines, fast approaching 30 and imminent lifelong spinsterhood, who is growing sick and tired of all the hapless men she dates. There is Miss Jacobs — “whose Christian name remained a secret” — a stout and elderly woman, who has never missed a day’s work, but keeps herself to herself. There is Lesley “Lisa” Miles, the temporary sales assistant who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go to university — although her father doesn’t approve.

And finally there is Magda — “no one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname” — a Displaced Person from Slovenia, who runs the Model Gowns department in super-efficient and glamorous style.

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, god-awful and ghastly snake woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined.

Written in a style reminiscent of the delightful Muriel Spark, The Women in Black charts the ups and downs of these women as they struggle to find their place in a rather male-dominated world. And while there’s no real solid plot, there’s a decidedly fairy-tale element to it in which Lisa is taken under Magda’s wing and transformed from a shy, bookish and naive young schoolgirl into a confident young woman intent on following her dreams.

Fun and frothy, but never simple

And while the story is good-natured and fun and perhaps just a tad “frothy”, there’s some important issues underpinning it, not least the way in which women are treated by the men around them. I  don’t think it is any coincidence that all the Australian men in this book are depicted as rather insensitive or chauvinistic — or both (which, funnily enough, ties up nicely with my previous read, even though that was set a decade or so later). And it is only the “Continental” men — specifically Magda’s husband Stefan and his Hungarian friend Rudi — who are cultured and sophisticated and who treat women with respect and courtesy.

Indeed, St John writes these refugees — or “reffos” as they were pejoratively called at the time — who settled in Australia after the Second World War with acute sensitivity and insight, presenting them as well educated and “cultivated” — everything that an ordinary Australian at the time was not. This is nicely summed up by Magda when she denounces Rudi’s plan to find a nice Australian girl to marry as “madness” because all the cultivated girls have gone abroad. “You will hardly ever find one here; if you do she is saving her fare to London, I can guarantee it,” she says.

Although The Women in Black — the title refers to the uniform the ladies wear at work — is slight and can easily be read in a couple of sittings, it is hugely intelligent and acutely perceptive about human relationships and the way in which “Continentals” began to transform Australian society — for the better. It’s an utterly delicious read — heartwarming, life affirming, funny and sad, all at the same time. I found it rather joyful and fun, as did Victoria Best who reviewed it so beautifully on Tales from the Reading Room last year. Whispering Gums also has a lovely review on her blog.

The good news for British and North American readers is that you don’t have to order it from Australia to read it — there are two editions (one by Abacus and one by Text Classics) readily available.