DEBRA ADELAIDE The Women’s Pages. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
The Women’s Pages is as captivating as it is irresistibly clever.
In the closing moments of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Lockwood, the novel’s narrator, visits the graves of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff, the soil covering Heathcliff’s grave still bare. The surrounding moor has already begun to encroach on the three headstones on the edge of the neglected country kirkyard. The final words of the novel are Lockwood’s:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Lockwood has a short memory. At the beginning of the novel, he spent the night at Wuthering Heights and woke screaming from a nightmare in which the ghost of Catherine appeared at his window, begging to be let in. However, a year later, standing in the silent graveyard, Lockwood sees only heather and stone. With Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar all gone, those left behind are finally free to go on living.
For Dove, the narrator of Debra Adelaide’s The Women’s Pages, this kind of peace seems unimaginable. In the year since her adoptive mother died, she’s drifted away from her friends and left her job as a graphic designer.
Dove is haunted – not by her mother, but by Wuthering Heights, her mother’s favourite novel. In her mother’s final days, Dove sat by her bedside, reading aloud as her life slowly faded away. Since then, the book has tormented Dove, ‘like a malaria of the brain, lying dormant then leaping up at unexpected times to attack with the fever of unresolved narrative’:
The novel had unfolded again and again to be something different every time, and she was sick of it because it meant there would never be a final reading of this book for her … Doubtless even after death when she was good and buried with the soft wind breathing through the grass above her, not for her would there be peace. She would never be one of the sleepers in the quiet earth.
But to Dove’s surprise, as her mother’s life was coming to an end, another had been just beginning. She starts to write her first novel, furiously scribbling notes by her mother’s bedside. In Dove’s novel, it’s the 1960s, and in the opening scene, Ellis, her main character, sits on a Sydney bus with her infant son, Charlie in her arms.
In alternating chapters, The Women’s Pages shifts between Dove and the fragments of her novel. As Dove fights her way through her grief, Ellis fights for equality.
Anyone who’s ever written, or tried to write fiction will surely feel a kinship with Dove as she empathises with, and is exasperated by, her characters in turn; as she agonises over timeframes and complicated, distressing plot points and is constantly surprised by the way writing reveals things about herself she didn’t intend:
She had not meant to write the story of women but that was how it had appeared, that was the only story in her head. 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.
The Women’s Pages started life as a short story, ‘The Sleepers in that Quiet Earth’, first published in Best Australian Stories 2011, then later in Adelaide’s 2013 collection of short stories, Letter to George Clooney. It’s easy to imagine Adelaide, like Dove, possessed by ‘the fever of unresolved narrative’, compelled to return to her characters out of sheer curiosity to find out what happens next.
There’s something so joyous about the way Adelaide writes about the reading and writing life that makes it easy to forget that The Women’s Pages is essentially a novel about unacknowledged loss. Dove’s grief over her mother’s death, rather than being directly expressed, is instead sublimated into her obsession with Wuthering Heights, a novel which has its own unacknowledged preoccupation with the vacant spaces left by dead, absent parents – often mothers:
Ellis had stepped out of a longer story, one in which women were always grasping for some sense of authenticity, and in which mothers in particular were absent. Wuthering Heights had almost no mothers and certainly none whom you could say were good to any degree. They were all dead or dying, or simply blank spaces, unnamed and unacknowledged, as if their progeny – Heathcliff, Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, Nelly – had been produced by magic, or they had just sprung up out of the earth like the primeval rocks or heather that spread across the windy moors.
It’s in passages like this one, where Adelaide deftly treads the line between fiction and literary criticism that The Women’s Pages is at its most magnificent. It’s a beguiling, wildly experimental love letter to literature itself; a metafictional meditation on the ways books consume us – sometimes against our will.
Taking on a literary classic is by no means easy, but Adelaide emerges triumphant. Her novel-within-a-novel is a poignant, richly feminist tribute to Wuthering Heights that deserves a place beside it on the shelf.
As captivating as it is irresistibly clever, The Women’s Pages is bound to have readers and writers alike nodding their heads in quiet recognition the whole way through.
Debra Adelaide The Women’s Pages Picador 2015 PB 304pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren is a Melbourne-based critic and freelance copywriter. She writes about books at Book to the Future.
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