Debra Adelaide\'s The Women\'s Pages
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The Women’s Pages Debra Adelaide Picador 293 pp, pb $29.99 9781743535981 Debra Adelaide’s The Women’s Pages is a gripping read. It is also a sophisticated meditation on the creative acts of reading and writing. The novel developed out of a short story, ‘The Sleepers in that Quiet Earth’, first published in Best Australian Essays 2011 and reprinted as the opening story of Adelaide’s powerful collection, Letter to George Clooney (2013). The characters and themes of the short story held Adelaide in their thrall, insisting she revisit and develop them further. So too the characters and themes of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), whose closing words provide the story’s title, have imaginatively enriched Adelaide’s reading and writing life and infuse this novel. In The Women’s Pages, Dove, a 38-‐year-‐old graphic designer, who has read and reread Wuthering Heights since her teenager years, reads the novel aloud to her dying mother. This act of reading inspires her to write. She visualises her protagonist, Ellis, born around 1950 and raised without a mother. She knows not where Ellis’s story will take her, but she is captive to it. She takes on ‘the emotional agony of her characters’: ‘The more she delved into the lives of her characters the more it was about missing or silent women and the more it seemed it was her job to find them and open their mouths and pull their words out and lay them across the pages.’ Yet these characters have other plans; they take on a life of their own. In the ‘Editor’s Preface’ to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë, writing as Currer Bell, apologised for what she saw as her sister’s indelicacies and mistakes, including Ellis Bell’s creation of darkly powerful characters like Heathcliff, Earnshaw and Catherine: ‘Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done’. Adelaide picks up on this thread. As her narrative develops, Dove’s characters exhibit a ‘maddening autonomy’. At crucial moments not even she can hear their conversations. Part of the delight in reading this book arises from the disjunct between Dove’s intentions and her characters’ agency. The Women’s Pages develops through twin narratives. Dove is grieving for her lost mother. In 2014 she resigns her job and retreats into the solitary world of writing. Ellis develops from a naïve sixteen-‐year-‐old in the mid Sixties, through decades of immense social change, to become editor of a popular magazine, Women’s Pages. Along the way she sacrifices marriage, children and relationships in order to fulfill her ambition. Switching between two narratives can be a risky strategy, but Adelaide excels in making both Dove’s writing life and Ellis’s experiences equally engaging. The double structure also allows her to simultaneously play with narrative time – Dove and Ellis appear to be on a collision path – and to explore the choices and compromises generations of women,
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right back to the nineteenth century, have had to make in order to live independent, creative lives. Some of these women achieve their professional ambitions but at an enormous personal cost. All of them go ‘through life with the wind forever whistling through a space in [their] chest’. Adelaide enjoys playing a self-‐conscious literary game. Dove’s copy of Wuthering Heights is marked up with her mother’s annotations: ‘A novel without a reader?...Imptc of narrative perspective. Self-‐conscious literary artefact…Absent mother theme reinforced’. Her characters, living in Sydney’s Inner West, are named Ellis, Edgar Ernest Shaw, Catherine and Nell. Dove’s name originates both from the novel’s epigraph taken from Brontë and a particular typeface. Early on she offers her reader guidance, but before long she cedes authority to the reader who is drawn into the intrigue of plot and left to negotiate its complex twists and turns. Adelaide’s title is also self-‐consciously playful. As the author of The Household Guide to Dying (2008), she enjoys recreating in extraordinary detail, the fashions, food and style of Ellis’s adult life, as they would have been showcased in the women’s pages of the Sunday paper. Waxed fruit, laminex tables, even a Schlemmertopf feature. Such attention is also another nod to Brontë’s art. Ellis’s Women’s Pages updates to become Pages magazine, but Adelaide’s intellectual interest has always been directed towards the lives, and the writing, of women. Her title affirms their interrelationship. Earlier this year Adelaide, as editor, introduced The Simple Act of Reading with an epigraph from Junot Díaz: ‘For it is in the simple act of reading where the living and the dead, the real and the imagined, meet.’ The Women’s Pages offers readers just such an invitation. Bernadette Brennan SMH and the Age November 16, 2015