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Posted on 8 Jun 2021 in Fiction |

LAURA BLOOM The Women and the Girls. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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Laura Bloom’s third novel for adults explores the social upheavals of 1970s Australia through the experiences of three women.

For a certain kind of person, there’s only one thing less welcome than a bill – and it’s an invitation.

So opens The Women and the Girls, the latest novel from Australian author Laura Bloom.

The year is 1977. Libby has just been invited to the house of Anna Wotcek for dinner. Both are mothers of nine-year-old girls currently studying at Sandgate school. Libby doesn’t want to go. She complains to her husband how the evening is likely to proceed, predicting how awful it is going to be:

‘I bet you that she’s already thinking up conversation topics to introduce, and then once it’s over she’ll expect us to invite them here again, and then they’ll invite us, and so on, like a tennis match that never ends.’

Her husband agrees, saying: ‘I believe it’s called a social life.’ And that sets the scene for the central theme of The Women and the Girls, which explores the ins and outs of female friendship against the limits imposed upon it, both external societal pressures and the pressures the women have learned to place upon themselves.  

 The late seventies were a confusing time. Norms that had held true for centuries were being challenged. Two world wars punctuated by a great depression had taught the female half of the population that they didn’t want to continue the same patterns as past generations and were capable of much more, despite what they had always been told – but there was no script for what this new world might mean.

As the story opens the three protagonists – Libby, Anna and Carol – are all living the life that society expects of them: each is married with at least one child. A few chapters and one ABBA concert later, all three have packed their cases and their children, left their husbands and the family homes, and are trying to forge a new life in a run-down ex-boarding house owned by Anna and her estranged husband Myles.

 ‘There was no script for this,’ Anna muses, staring out of a window into darkness:

…no certainty. There were no milestones to measure her progress against, or key performance indicators to be ticked off. For the first time in her life she was flying blind, and there was no way to predict how it would unfold.

For Carol, a reluctant and recent immigrant to Australia, the case for seeking a new life is clear. Her husband, Steve, is a domineering presence who casts a menacing shadow over her and their daughter, Collette. He cancels her passport, denying her the ability to return to her native England. He tries to regulate her movements, controlling who she sees and when. He forces them to keep moving, never letting them establish strong friendships or any independence outside the family home.  

 Anna’s marriage to Myles appears outwardly perfect. They are both attentive and supportive of the other. Anna is a mother and manages a successful career. The only problem is that after the birth of their children Myles appears to have no interest in her physically. When one too many efforts to get his attention fails, frustration drives her out the door to seek excitement elsewhere.

Libby’s husband Ben does all that is expected of him as the traditional provider, except perhaps for what matters most –having a presence in his family’s lives.

By the late 20th century it is no longer enough for a marriage simply to involve the transaction of provider-husband and housekeeper-mother-wife. Women are starting to glimpse the possibility of marriage as a partnership of equals, of mutual support and quality engagement, even if they can’t quite yet visualise how that might look.

But transitions are rarely easy. As life in the boarding house proceeds, all three women find emancipation to be more challenging than first anticipated. The freedom to live your own life is also the freedom to make your own mistakes. To face challenges that you don’t know how to deal with. To get it wrong. To be less than your ideal self, or what you might have imagined your ideal self to be if it was ever let loose in ideal circumstances. And to find that the way you actually think and act might not be the way that society has dictated you should in any given situation. 

And perhaps that is rather the point. It is all too easy to scream against an external environment that you see as chafing the real, unfettered you. But what happens when that version of you gets a chance to slip the restraints? What if you find you’re still unhappy? Where does the fault lie then?

This is a different world to the present, if one that still seems within reach, and we are reminded of this each time Bloom describes Libby’s hippy-inspired fashion, Ben’s red velour tracksuit, the smattering of bean bag décor and – most of all – the casual smoking. But the ‘70s, as now, were transitional times. As we adjust to a pandemic-riddled world where some rules we thought were fixed are now negotiable, we are all facing similar challenges. In the famous words of Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility – the power to be who you want to be, and the responsibility to use that power wisely.

Because, as Anna, Libby and Carol discover, one day you run out of villains to blame. And then you find yourself on your own. So it’s best to make sure that is company you can handle.  

Laura Bloom The Women and the Girls Allen & Unwin 2021 344pp $29.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.

You can buy The Women and the Girls from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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