I have to admit to not being a fan of Elizabeth Jolley. I know that she’s highly thought of: a good reading friend whose reading judgement I trust (and who is probably reading this post!) very much likes her. So why do I find her so off-putting?
I’ve really tried: I’ve read several of her books but find myself being repelled by the mustiness and acidity of her female characters. They’re like a prickly heavy British overcoat: they’re like Hetty Wainthrop and Hyacinth Bucket; like a whiskery old Aunt. Even in the books set in present time (given that she stopped writing about ten years ago), there’s a dissonance about these characters, as if they are out of time. Her novels are often set in Australia, but there seems to be an innate Britishness about them.
I’ve seen her described as “disturbing” and perhaps this is what I’m alluding to, but I’m never really quite sure whether Jolley’s writing is deliberately subversive and edgy. I think her dialogue is often wooden- or does that reflect the awkwardness of the characters she’s describing? I think that her books seem to jerk around without a strong narrative thread- or is she being very clever and post-modern? Is it bad writing? Or good writing? I really don’t know.
That said, I’ve enjoyed My Father’s Moon more than the other works I’ve read. It is set in London during WW II, and for me this gives the book a unity and integrity that I can’t find in her other books. The characters act, and feel, like 1940s characters in 1940s times. The book is written in a number of first-person, self-contained chapters but there’s not a clear narrative arc in the way they are placed: events happen and the reader works on making the causal and chronological links, because Jolley doesn’t. Again- is this clever writing, or lazy?
I often sense steel in Jolley’s writing, but there’s a vulnerability in the writing in My Father’s Moon. There’s an unresolved yearning to touch and be touched by other female friendships, and a sense of distance and apartness. Perhaps these same qualities are there in her other books as well, because there’s a strong autobiographical element repeated in many of her works. But I think I find it less repellent in a younger woman, coming of age in a time further back, in a British world of London streets and air raids and prickly woollen overcoats.