Monday, August 2, 2010
The Vera Wright Trilogy: My Father's Moon / Cabin Fever / The Georges' Wife by Elizabeth Jolley — 568 pgs
In this haunting autobiographical trilogy of novels, the life and times of a young English woman living in the 1930s are examined with a startling clarity and a richness of emotion. We first meet Vera growing up in England to a pair of gentle German speaking parents,. Vera soon moves to a live in girls' boarding school, where she discovers the intricacies and disappointments of living within a clique of girls. Constantly comparing herself to the others who surround her, Vera's boarding school days are filled with memories of small cruelties and alienation that seem to leave her when she decides to flee from the school to become a wartime nurse. But life as a nurse is only boarding school on a larger scale, and soon Vera has found herself in the thrall of a married doctor who leaves her pregnant and alone. Balancing amongst the swirl of rumors at the hospital and still longing for her married lover, Vera one day makes a hasty escape from the hospital in order to hide her shame. She checks herself into a birthing home, where she can safely deliver her child. Though she delivers a healthy baby, Vera doesn't wish to move on and makes a place and job for herself at the women's home, raising her daughter amongst the residents. When concerns for the welfare of her child begin to surface, Vera flees again and finds herself amongst a strange group of individuals, becoming a matron at an alternative education center. Once there, Vera begins to see how truly bizarre the place and it's inhabitants really are, and once again escapes her fate. After a few close calls, Vera ends up on the doorstep of the Georges, a pair of elderly siblings who have been looking for a maid. It is here that Vera truly begins to find herself, and it is here, beside the patient Georges, that Vera will enter into an unlikely relationship and arrangement with them. As Vera looks back to place all these memories into the story of herself, she reveals herself to be a woman both wise and naive, kind and cruel, and lonely and cherished.
When I received this book for review, I had no idea what to make of it. I had never heard of the author before, but in glancing at the book I came to see that she was very successful in Australia and Europe. I also saw that this volume was unique in the fact that it was the first time all three books had been published in one volume, and the first time that the last book, The Georges' Wife, had ever been published at all. I was really very excited to get started with this book, and though there was a little bit of fumbling for me, I grew quickly compelled with the story of Vera and all of its strange twists and permutations.
First let me say that this book was a little odd stylistically. Certain passages were repeated throughout all three narratives and at times the story was not exactly linear. This made for a bit of confusion when I was initially settling in with the book, but after awhile, I grew to expect these oddities and to understand that if I was patient and observant with my reading I would have all these things explained to me at some point. There are sections in these books that seem, at times, to be very stream of consciousness and sometimes things were inserted into the story that didn't seem to have very much meaning at all. This was true until I started to get to the end of the books and everything began falling into place. Jolley also has a habit of repeating the particular instances of a scene several times, and at first I had wondered why this seemed to keep happening. Ultimately I was given to understand that these stories are only her recollections, and due to the way that her mind remembers the events in question, she at times is a bit repetitive and chronologically confused. What I thought was interesting was the way these repeated memories changed and enhanced themselves within the passages they were inserted into. The first time I heard an anecdote, I might not have realized it's significance or symbolism in the way I did the third time or even the fifth time I heard it due to the story that was being written around it. This style of writing made everything seem very complex and multi-faceted. In a way, it did remind me of the way that memories can sometimes compress themselves in our minds, only to pop out at unexpected moments to lounge over the things in front of us and to change them.
Vera's story, though interspersed with bits of comedy, was ultimately one of sadness and peculiar longing. She seemed to be so different from everyone around her and I think her difference came from her unrequited longing for things that she felt could never be hers. It is ironic that she spent her whole life looking for someone to love her and to shelter her emotionally, yet when she found these things, she never recognized them for what they were and continually threw them away. She was very desirous of close friendships and partnerships, both platonic and not, yet when the very people she wished for had come, she chose to look over their heads to others who she could not have. Instead of maintaining and building relationships with those who were willing to build with her, she was constantly chasing things and people that were for some reason or the other unavailable. This gave her a waifish and needy personality and many times Vera was drawn into very dangerous and morally gray situations due to her neediness. The people she wanted to be involved with used her mercilessly, and many times she knew it. She was so used to this that she accepted it and seemed to search out the most damaging people to befriend and place her hopes into. Hers was a life filled with substitution and also of an aching loneliness that she could never overcome. It was sad to see her do this time and time again, and I grew to be very afraid for her, but I can see the humanness in this and see that she was much like many people of the world are today: forever chasing what they cannot have, and mindlessly discarding what they do.
Vera's neediness played into her sexuality as well. Often, when she had put herself out there emotionally towards someone that she wanted to befriend, they used her willingness to prey on her sexually. This was true of both women and men, and it seemed to be a constant theme in her life. Even those who I didn't consider to be cruel to her fell into this trap, and these situations were remarkably modern in their feel. I imagine that this must and does happen a lot with young girls with uncertain self-esteem, and for Vera, it was a trap that she fell into over and over again. From her boarding school days and well into her middle age, Vera was continuously a target for those who wished to use her sexually. There was no mention of sex and love in its tenderest forms, no sweet whispered endearments or close affection, only the raw and sometimes vague mention of what was done to her by these people. What I think is most sad is that Vera interpreted these actions as love and grew to think of herself as somewhat loved, or at the very least, needed, when it was clear to me that she was nothing of the sort. This was all relayed in what I can only call a naive way, with Vera's projections coming clear across the page, and it almost had the effect of whitewashing these sections. It was as if Vera's beliefs and viewpoints could be my own, if only told convincingly enough. Vera didn't see these people as predators, and by necessity, she grew to love and depend on them, as they were the only people left in her path. She describes herself in later parts of the book as needy of approval and affection, and I totally agree. It's as if she can't stand on her own and will take any ill advised shelter that she can.
Other sections of the book dealt with her troubled relationship with her mother and her adoration of her father. I think part of the reason that Vera went on to have the life she had was her desire to escape the confining and judgemental attitude of her mother. It is clear that Vera was a disappointment to her, and although Vera's words and actions are contrary, I think in some part of her, she admired and even loved her mother. I think her fleeing to all of these emotional and physical destinations was her way of trying to escape the disapproval she felt from her family. Vera was clearly a very troubled person, yet it was impossible not to side with her and to somewhat understand her and her vulnerabilities. She grew to become so familiar that I worried and ached for her. I felt a curious tenderness for all her bruised parts and wished that she could have found the happiness she so craved. This is not to say that at times she couldn't be cruel, for she was. There were certain instances when I felt a repulsion for her and her actions and felt that she showed a very mean spirit towards others that she thought beneath her. But in the curious complexity of her personality, she could also be very loving and protective and it was in these variables that her humanity came shining through.
This book, though unusual, was a very complex and emotional read for me. Within the framework of Vera and her life, Jolley has opened the door to her psyche and created a tale that I think would resonate with many readers. Although this is a story of a time gone by, it has a remarkably modern and immediate feel to it, and part of this is due to the uncompromising attitude of confession that Vera takes. It's more of a cerebral and serious read than I had been expecting but also one that has left a deep impression on me and the way I think. I would certainly recommend this book to readers who are intrigued by the premise and who feel that they might learn something from Vera's journey. Highly recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM