Alix Kates Shulman's black feminist comedy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen still has the power to shock, fifty years after it was first published.
It's 1950s America. Sasha Davis is beautiful, smart and not short on boyfriends. Despite having it all, she's on an anxiety spiral. Twenty-four years of age, it won't be long until she's thirty when she's sure she will have lost her looks. As a woman, she knows all the cards are stacked against her. It's either marry, have children, play second fiddle to a second-rate husband, or face economic ruin and social ostracism. Sasha marries Frank, an academic, and agrees to work mundane jobs to support his burgeoning career. Eventually she can stand it no longer, travels through Europe, has an affair and decides to leave Frank, only to end up in more financial, romantic and reproductive jeopardy.
First published in 1972, the blackly comic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was a runaway hit, clearly hitting a nerve with readers. The story is told in a convoluted way, the novel opening with Sasha leaving her husband, then describing her childhood, growing up and finally becoming prom queen, with all its resultant problems with boys. Sasha does hit the dreaded age of 30 and finds life doesn't get easier, especially if you're a woman.
Alix Kates Shulman doesn't hold back in describing all the inequities and horrors facing women and young girls. (One memorable scene has a group of young boys virtually abduct a young Sasha and pull her underwear off in a ritual humiliation). For women in the 1950s and 60s, there are limited job opportunities, sexual harassment, the drudgery of bringing up children and financial insecurity. Women's reproductive issues are brought up in some of the novel's most confronting scenes, with language so coarse (and funny) it can't be repeated here. The depiction of an abortion, and its aftermath, is a true horror, with images that will stay in the mind forever.
Both rancid comedy and feminist call-to-arms, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen may not be to everyone's taste. It's dark, brutal, caustic and funny. It's also a rollicking ride of a book, a take-no-prisoners account of 1950s womanhood and still reads as remarkably modern. An important document of the times and a marker of how much progress still needs to be made.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, by Alix Kates Shulman. Published by Serpent's Tail. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Marg Piercy's feminist classic A Woman on the Edge of Time critiques our dominant capitalist, patriarchal model, and offers the reader an alternative future.
It's the 1970s. Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in her mid-thirties, has been unfairly incarcerated at a New York mental institution. She has had some drug use issues in her past, some domestic problems, but nothing warranting this extreme treatment. In hospital, she is subjected to all sorts of cruelties and indignities. Bureaucracy and form filling permeate everything; the doctors and nurses are self-centred career professionals, interested only in self-promotion and moving up the hierarchy. As mental health care experts they may profess to be governed by the principles of rationality and best practice, but in reality they're highly unstable themselves, plagued with a litany of personal problems.
Connie is in serious trouble. The doctors want to perform an operation on her brain that will allow them to control her moods. She's seen the results on other patients – one committed suicide and another was left but a shell of her former self – and has determined she must escape the hospital. But how?
During her tumultuous detention, Connie has been visited by a being from the future. Luciente, an androgynous woman from the year 2137, makes contact and persuades Connie to visit the future, a better place by far. They time travel to Mattapoisett, an agrarian community that has eliminated most forms of oppressive hierarchy, patriarchy and big government. This future civilisation is gender-neutral, classless and racially diverse. Technology is used conservatively, decision making is consultative and democratic, in a grass roots kind of way, and society is by and large much more feminised. The same old human problems remain – jealousy, impatience, violent impulses – but they are dealt with in a more open and honest manner. Neither has war been eliminated. The people of Mattapoisett are involved in a conflict with an ultra-capitalist, environmentally rapacious enemy – the last remnants of our own society.
Connie learns much from Luciente and her people. The biggest lesson is that, in her own time, in a New York mental hospital, she's involved in a war herself. A war against terrible social and economic forces that keep women like her locked up and tortured. She decides to fight back – to at least try to resist – with devastating results.
First published in 1976, Marg Piercy's feminist, sci-fi classic is a mind bending novel of utopian possibilities. The sections that deal with the mental hospital – its grim wards, defeated patients and sadistic doctors – are rivetting for their sense of realism. Piercy makes a compelling critique of our rational, expert dominated world, which can lack empathy and common sense. (Interestingly, the future world of Mattapoisett has no time for big titled professionals, seeing house work as just as important as neurosurgery.)
Readers may find the utopian world of Mattapoisett a bit of a throwback to the seventies, with its hippie-like eschewal of property, its nature cult and gender fluidity. Nevertheless, Piercy does write a philosophically detailed alternate future, one that provides an illuminating contrast to the mad world of 70s New York. Mattapoisett is a breath of fresh air, an idealistic alternative to our current brutal capitalist model.
A Woman on the Edge of Time will challenge and shock. The world looks different having read it.
A Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marg Piercy. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a young girl is sent to work at a sea admiral's house, she discovers a bizarre boy-monster hiding under the bed in a secret room.
Young Emilia (affectionately known as Lampie) lives with her father Augustus in a lighthouse. It is part of her job to light the lamp in the lighthouse to warn ships, but one night she forgets the matches and disaster strikes. A ship crashes and all hell breaks loose. Lampie's father, who is also a drunk, strikes her on the cheek and she is sent away to work at Black House. Black House belongs to the often absent Admiral and Lampie must labour under the orders of Martha, the housekeeper. Lampie starts to hear rumours about a horrible monster that lives in a mysterious room at the top of the house. Curiosity drives her on, despite the possible dangers, and what she discovers is both amazing and shocking. A boy, the Admiral's son, is hiding under the bed. His name is Edward, although Lampie calls him fish because of certain physical attributes he has. Edward has difficulty walking due to what he describes as his “deformity” and would dearly like to walk like a normal boy, not so much for himself but to impress his distant father.
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, a first novel from Dutch illustrator and writer Annet Schaap, reads in many ways like a seafaring version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The novel's central struggle centres around an orphaned girl trying to help a crippled boy regain his sense of self and belonging, and hence curing him. Whereas The Secret Garden is more realistic and psychological, Lampie and the Children of the Sea is an out and out fantasy, whimsical and otherworldly. There are some great set pieces – especially Lampie's visit to the fair and meeting with the "phenomenal freaks". Annet Schaap's visceral description of the freakshow mermaid, sitting in her dirty tub of water, is genuinely hair raising. It is this mixture of constant invention and playfulness, along with the novel's undertow of melancholy, its themes of displacement and abandonment, that makes Lampie and the Children of the Sea emotionally resonant but also an unabashed entertainment.
A thrilling, soaring adventure with a cast of idiosyncratic, if not bizarre, characters that captures the imagination.
9+ years old
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, by Annet Schaap. Published by Pushkin Children's. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Osbert the family dog is considered too scruffy to attend Aunt Cathy's wedding. Can the children make him presentable in time?
It's the day before Aunt Cathy's wedding. Father has decided the family dog, Osbert, cannot attend. He's too scruffy looking. The family has had Osbert since he was one month old, and they'd hoped he'd turn into a terrier, but they've had to settle instead for a black poodle with limp fur. The children – Ann, Peter, Jane and Andrew – are terribly upset. They decide to take Osbert to Monsieur Toto, a popular ladies' hairdresser. Monsieur Toto is very busy with appointments, but decides to take on this urgent job. When the children pick Osbert up they are delighted with the transformation. Osbert has had a permanent wave, his fur is shampooed, his legs shaved into cowboy trousers and his head topped off with a spray of orange blossom. He's the hit of the wedding!
Noel Streatfeild, famous for her children's novel Ballet Shoes, first published Osbert in 1950. It fell out of print immediately after and has only now been revived, almost seventy years later. It's a charming, funny, quirky story, with delightful illustrations by Susanne Suba and sure to appeal to children and adults of all ages. A re-discovered gem that shouldn't be missed.
Osbert, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Scholastic. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Edna O'Brien paints an unforgettable portrait of the lives of African women.
A group of Nigerian girls are abducted from their school by a militant jihadi group. They are taken to a secret camp and undergo all sorts of horrors, including genital mutilation and pack rape. To show the girls their possible fate should they not submit to the militants' authority, they are made to witness a woman's public stoning.
The focus of the novel is Maryam, who narrates her story. She has been through so much trauma and hardship that she is not even sure of her age. Married off to a jihadi soldier, she has a baby girl, but manages to escape the camp. Finally reunited with her mother after much danger, it would seem her ordeal has ended, but it's only really just begun.
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's new novel is a work of great courage, integrity and artistic risk-taking. Taking on the voice of a young African woman (the story is based on the Boko Haram abductions) is a brave step, but in such skilled hands it pays off. O'Brien's novel has urgency, fire and anger. Written with consummate skill, even grace, it's an unforgettable portrait of the shocking abuses of girls and women.
Girl, by Edna O'Brien. Published by Faber. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books