THE VERA WRIGHT TRILOGY by Elizabeth Jolley

Book Quote:

“I have a corner seat in this train by a mistake which is not entirely my fault. The woman, who is in this seat, asks me if I think she has time to fetch herself a cup of tea. I can see that she badly wants to do this and, in order that she does not have to go without the tea, I agree that, though she will be cutting it fine, there is a chance that she will have time. So she goes and I see her just emerging from the refreshment room with a look on her face which shows how she feels. She has her tea clutched in one hand and I have her reserved seat because it is silly, now that the train has started, to stand in the corridor being crushed by army greatcoats and kitbags and boots, simply looking at the emptiness of this comfortable corner.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (JUN 13, 2010)

Although she wrote all her life, Jolley didn’t get her first book published until she was 53. Thereafter she published 15 novels, four story collections and four non-fiction books. The daughter of an Austrian mother and English father and a transplant to Australia from England, she became one of Australia’s most celebrated authors and won at least 16 awards. Yet by the time of her death in 2007, her books were out of print. This new edition of her acclaimed autobiographical trilogy brings these three novels – My Father’s Moon / Cabin Fever / The Georges’ Wife – together in one volume in the U.S. for the first time. The conclusion, The George’s Wife, was never before published here though it won major awards and accolades in Australia.

Having read My Father’s Moon and Cabin Fever years ago, I can tell you it makes a difference having the final volume, but even more – reading the books in one volume changes the experience. There’s a disjointed quality to Vera’s narration and a rhythm to the prose, which creates a deep intimacy when all three books are read together. The format also satisfies the build-up of suspense and relieves certain frustrations with Vera’s sometimes self-destructive passivity.

As My Father’s Moon opens in post-WWII England, Vera is departing with her illegitimate daughter, Helena, for a teaching position at a progressive boarding school, Fairfields. Her mother is distressed that she is taking the child, but then her mother is distressed at the whole mess Vera has made of her promising life. And thirty pages later, as if to underscore her series of bad choices, Vera is waiting at the end of a train line, having left squalid, abusive Fairfields and thrown herself on the mercy of a nursing colleague she hasn’t communicated with in five years.

Each of the ten sections focuses on an aspect of Vera’s life, which illuminate the story’s center – her wartime nursing (instead of the university her parents had hoped for) and her own naivety, self-absorption and insecurity. From Fairfield her perspective returns to childhood and boarding school, the wartime refugees her mother aided, a lesbian affair, a beloved neighbor whose warnings go unanswered, and pivotal incidents in her war experience. Fractured repetitions offer new depth, details or interpretations of events.

From her poor but bookish home life and the typical child’s impatience with her mother’s foreign accent to the casual cruelty of dormitory girls in a hidebound, lawless environment, which is uneasily echoed in nurses’ housing, Vera is flatly, musingly honest about her own failings and loneliness. At school Vera torments a girl she calls Bulge, for no more reason than physical antipathy. As a new nurse, she’s in thrall to a roommate who she keeps in cigarettes and spending money. Taken up by a doctor and his wife who move in moneyed, bohemian, dissolute circles, she feels herself uplifted, cosseted and loved, only to find herself seduced and abandoned.

As Cabin Fever opens Vera is a doctor in a hotel at a conference. And that’s about all we find out about that. “Memories are not always in sequence, not in chronological sequence.” Structured like My Father’s Moon in interconnected sections, Vera remembers Helena’s birth, her horrible, stultifying experience as a mother’s helper, her removal to the nursing home to have her baby and her extended stay there, all of it intertwined with wartime and childhood memories. Loneliness looms large, but there’s a fair amount of humor too as Vera limits her focus to getting through the day.

In book three, The Georges Wife, Vera makes the same mistakes all over again, longing for love. “I suppose I shall be lonely, Mr. George, I suppose that, one day, I shall have to be alone. I shall be lonely.” Taking a position as a servant to an unmarried brother and sister quite set in their ways, she has a second child. But this time there is no running away and no abandonment though Mr. George (as she still thinks of him) keeps putting off their marriage. She goes to medical school, and takes up with a strange couple not of her class – echoes of her postwar youth. But this time she gets her education and eventually emigrates to Australia with Mr. George.

From her perspective as a psychologist Vera does not spare herself: “I am a shabby person. I understand, if I look back, that I have treated kind people with an unforgivable shabbiness. For my work a ruthless self-examination is needed. Without understanding something of myself, how can I understand anyone else.” Of course, most of us could say the same if we were honest. Jolley says it in a trilogy of beguiling rumination, exploring a half-century of history through one woman’s very personal experience. Though largely tossed about by life, drifting into circumstances and relationships of least resistance, Vera finally gets a grip on herself and her future and perhaps that’s what maturity is all about, even if it’s still a lonely place.

Jolley’s prose is intimate, poetic and unflinching. The disjointed structure builds upon itself with an almost mesmerizing quality. Though less humorous than much of her fiction, the trilogy is a work of emotional depth and beauty, which will be enjoyed by anyone who likes to wrap themselves in compelling, artful fiction.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Persea; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Jolley
EXTRAS: Elizabeth Jolley Research Collection
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: See this one, for a contrast:

Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann

And more by Elizabeth Jolley:

Foxbaby

Sugar Mother

Bibliography:

Non-fiction:


June 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Australia, Classic, United Kingdom, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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