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Posted on 22 Jun 2023 in Fiction |

CATHERINE THERESE Things She Would Have Said Herself. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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Catherine Therese follows up her memoir The Weight of Silence with a novel featuring an abrasive yet sympathetic protagonist.

My mother thought Catch-22 was one of the funniest books ever written. My dad thought it one of the saddest. Things She Would Have Said Herself reminded me of their observations, careening between tragedy and hilarity. There’s a lot going on in this novel. Each chapter opens opens a new fault line – and there are many – in the Bird family, as well as containing plenty of digressions, which allow for the characters’ extended observations about humanity, sprinkled with insights.

Leslie Bird is a statuesque woman, married for 50-plus years, with a bevy of grown daughters and a son. The angst of children’s lifetime attachment to a parent can be tough, and she’s stopped pretending, now looking back at motherhood with a jaundiced gaze. It is endless and thankless, something to be survived, like measles. ‘Leslie knows how pathetic it all sounds and mostly keeps her sadness to herself. What mother ever dares speak the truth – the whole truth – about the motherhood deal?’

She is also riddled with prejudice and few are spared. She mouths off, sometimes loudly on the bus, about the Asians, the Tongans, and the white trash a few streets over who unfortunately share their surname (the ‘Dirty Birds’). Her encounter with a post-op trans woman is pure bigotry, but as she recounts her wedding night, for which she had been woefully unprepared, she has a revelation.

With God as their witness, Leslie Bird was incredulous the Lord would condone what Wallace had unleashed … mere hours after their vows, all pendulous and glistening and sinister…. Who wouldn’t want to … get rid of that revolting appendage? Bless her.

She is redeemed by her honesty and as we learn more about her past, she becomes sympathetic. Her own toxic mother once slammed their front door in her face and Leslie tries to do better – she makes sure all her grandchildren’s fingers are prised free before she closes her front door on her own daughter.

Therese’s observations are poignant. A neglected garden strewn with accumulated detritus is a metaphor for Leslie’s family – those seven lawnmowers were meant to be soldered together to form a phalanx, but they ‘stayed separated, exactly where they were. Just like us, Leslie thought.’ She muses on her marriage: ‘I can’t know you. And you can’t know me. Marriage is proof. Claustrophobic and smelly.’

Her commentary on the state of aged care could be seen as a public service announcement: Leslie’s mother, Agnes, thanked anyone who walked in the room ‘for coming, for going and for leaving her there dying with her dinner going cold on the lunch tray, always positioned just out of reach’. Even Leslie’s ten-year-old grandson is wise to the horror of institutional care, advising his mother that when she’s old, he will pay the janitor to pretend to be him on his ‘visits’.

There is also gut-wrenching loss and more than one bloody death, including an extended account of the Lockerbie plane disaster, when ‘two hundred and fifty-nine people fell from the sky’. Leslie is told to get over her stillborn child, to go home and ‘have another one’.

Like walking into a high wind, this book requires you to turn up your collar, lower your head, and just keep going. I wish the author had pared back characters, a slew of extraneous events and pages of backstory (including an extended missive which had me turning the pages to see when it ended) that exhausts and detracts from the gems. It does move towards a conclusion of sorts but by the time we got there, I’d forgotten its impetus.

It is to Therese’s credit that the humour is not discordant in a novel about the paucity of our collective response to grief, a response captured in the platitude, ‘Never mind, love’.

Catherine Therese Things She Would Have Said Herself Hachette Australia 2023 PB 368pp $32.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy Things She Would Have Said Herself from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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