Con­fes­sions of a not so merry widow

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Thuy On

NOT long af­ter her 80th birth­day, widow Margery Blan­don finds her­self atop the 43rd floor of the lo­cal Tropic Ho­tel, pre­par­ing to throw her­self to her death. While she waits for the crowds be­low to dis­perse, she con­tem­plates the re­cent cat­alytic events that led her to con­sider self-de­struc­tion.

Ros­alie Ham’s third novel is not so much chick-lit but hen-lit, with sexy heels and cock­tails re­placed by sen­si­ble shoes and end­less cups of tea.

As in her pre­vi­ous two books, The Dress­maker (2000) and Sum­mer at Mount Hope (2005), Ham zooms in on a close-knit group of rel­a­tives and friends. The re­sult is a cosy, sudsy kitchen-sink drama that can be­come a bit claus­tro­pho­bic if you long for vis­tas that ex­tend be­yond the picket fence and the pub.

Ham’s pro­tag­o­nist is an eas­ily recog­nis­able type: Margery is one of those grumpy old women who seems to be pre­ma­turely pick­led in dis­ap­point­ment. Po­lit­i­cally and morally con­ser­va­tive, she has lived in the same house for 60-odd years and finds it dif­fi­cult to ac­com­mo­date any changes, even if her ail­ing health ne­ces­si­tates them.

That there are plans afoot to tinker with her liv­ing ar­range­ments fur­ther sours her al­ready queru­lous dis­po­si­tion. As she mur­murs to her long-dead twin sis­ter Cecily, her loved ones have been con­spir­ing with each other and there’s no one she can trust any more. Her daugh­ter Ju­dith and son-in­law Barry are grasp­ing and avari­cious, des­per­ate to send her into a re­tire­ment home. Her son Wal­ter means well but a box­ing-re­lated dent in the head means he’s vul­ner­a­ble and eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated, while her other son Morris has dis­ap­peared to Thai­land in a fug of sus­pi­cion.

Then there’s on­go­ing dis­putes with age­ing neigh­bours, fric­tion with the home help and her own pro­cliv­ity for falls and stum­bles. Feel­ing be­sieged by forces be­yond her con­trol, Margery even fails to take her usual com­fort from the prover­bial wis­doms of desk­top cal­en­dars (‘‘De­ceit al­ways re­turns to its mas­ter’’, ‘‘ Ev­ery­one’s got plans un­til they get hit’’, ‘‘ Fall seven times. Get up eight.’’). There doesn’t seem to be any epi­gram­matic plat­i­tudes that deal with the pos­si­bil­ity of fling­ing your­self off a bal­cony.

The nar­ra­tive moves at a pace one would ex­pect of a pen­sioner’s progress. At times the daily do­mes­tic minu­tia of an oc­to­ge­nar­ian is te­diously and need­lessly spelt out (a whole para­graph can be de­voted to the mak­ing of tea and toast) but the rep­e­ti­tion of small chores and sim­ple plea­sures does de­scribe the tightly cir­cum­scribed world in­hab­ited by the lonely se­nior, a life en­livened by lis­ten­ing to Magic Ra­dio Best Tunes of all Time, do­ing a Big Shop on pen­sion day and cross-stitching yet an­other piece of art­work.

Margery ad­mits that her great­est as­set is ‘‘ her past, since there’s not much fu­ture left’’ and she rem­i­nisces (with per­haps too much fond­ness) on decades-long grudges with neigh­bours and fam­ily. These anec­do­tal set-pieces are darkly comic and pro­vide much needed colour and lev­ity to an other­wise dull ex­is­tence, one mea­sured by rou­tine punc­tured by the oc­ca­sional out­rage.

The char­ac­ters that pop­u­late this lit­tle strip of in­ner sub­ur­bia are all quirky grotesques; some are sym­pa­thet­i­cally drawn, oth­ers verge on the edge of car­i­ca­ture. Ham touches on var­i­ous is­sues in­clud­ing the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of old work­ing-class neigh­bour­hoods, and the quiet, des­per­ate souls who live un­en­cum­bered by fam­ily, but for the most part the book con­cerns it­self with Margery’s sense of fa­mil­ial and com­mu­nity be­trayal as a con­se­quence of the se­crets kept and the lies told for her own pro­tec­tion. There’s the usual col­lec­tion of rat­tling skele­tons in the com­mu­nal closet in­clud­ing adul­tery and il­le­git­i­mate off­spring and de­spite years of con­tain­ment, it all comes tum­bling out in the end.

Margery has al­ways re­garded her­self as a model mother, wife and neigh­bour but given that the book is about the re-eval­u­a­tion of

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