Book reviews

Archive for the ‘St John – Madeleine’ Category

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John


The Women in Black by Madeleine St John was the book I enjoyed most last year, so I snatched up The Essence of the Thing when I found it at a book-exchange, but then couldn’t bring myself to read it for almost six months in case it didn’t live up to The Women in Black.

I needn’t have worried. Madeleine St John did not put a foot (or word) wrong in this story of the break-down of a relationship.

Nicola is a gorgeous young thing who has been living with Jonathan, a stodgy lawyer, for six years. One night she returns to their apartment in Notting Hill after having popped out to buy cigarettes and Jonathan wants to talk. Alarm bells sound, rightly, and Jonathan tells Nicola he wants to break up. No particular reason, he says, it just isn’t working out.

The remainder of the book shows Nicola trying to get to the ‘the essence of the thing’, to learn why Jonathan didn’t love her anymore.

The Essence of the Thing is a very different story to The Women in Black and some of the elements I had enjoyed so much in ‘The Women’ were missing. The story of the end of a relationship is always sad, so clearly there was very little of the brightness and joy that I had been hoping for.

Another difference was that The Essence of the Thing was entirely set in England with English characters, while ‘The Women’ was very Australian. The only Australian reference was an in-joke about ‘The Women’  when Jonathan started to play one of Nicola’s audiobooks, a ‘footling tale about some shop assistants in an antipodean department store’. Jonathan was uninterested and disdainful of the story…

The language used in The Essence of the Thing is much more sophisticated than that of ‘The Women’ and although much of the story is told using dialogue between Nicola, Jonathan and a number of their friends, there is a coldness to the characters and the story.

Although The Essence of the Thing was short-listed for the Booker Prize, I much preferred The Women in Black, whose characters took my heart with them on their story. I’m still hoping to get my hands on A Pure Clear Light and A Stairway to Paradise.


The Women in Black by Madeleine St John


I would have passed over The Women in Black by Australian author Madeleine St John had not Orange Pekoe Reviews called this book “a perfect novel” in her recent review.

Who would have thought that hiding behind this cover is a novel by a nearly forgotten author which deserves to be shelved with the very best of Australian literature? Not me.

The Women in Black is set in Sydney in the 1950s and tells the stories of four women who work together at Goode’s, Sydney’s most prestigious department store. Goode’s is fictional, and is most likely based on David Jones, which would have been the place to shop in Sydney during this time if you were a woman with discretionary money to spend. The women working in DJ’s also wear black and are frighteningly elegant.

Patty has been married for Frank for over ten years without any sign of a baby coming along to put an end to her employment with Goode’s, but a black lace nightie may change that. Her husband Frank is described as “a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel not violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Sounds to me like the definition of most Australian man from any era. Personally, I quite like them.

Fay has been swept off her feet by unsuitable men too many times to count. She “never seemed to meet the sort of man she dreamed of: someone who would respect her as well as desiring her; someone who would love her and wish to marry her.” An invitation to a New Year’s Eve party from a workmate opens Faye’s eyes to possibilities other than the usual men she meets.

Young Lisa is on the cusp of becoming a woman, and dreams of becoming a poet, while Magda, who runs the ‘Model Gowns’ section in Goode’s is an elegant ‘New Australian’. Together, the four women work in the Ladies Frocks Department, providing the women of Sydney with beautiful dresses during the lead up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The story is told by an all-seeing narrator who tells the story as it unfolds, and who is not above giving the reader a wink from time to time.

The story is deceptively simple, touching and funny. The characters’ voices are as Australian as all get-out, and the phrases used are things which adults used to say when I was a child. Australia’s population has changed so much that these voices have mostly been lost and reading The Women in Black made me nostalgic to hear them again.

I loved this book so much that I went to my favourite bookshop, Hill of Content in Melbourne, and bought my own copy. I would love to find Madeleine St John’s other books too but was told they are now out of print, so I will be scrounging around second-hand bookshops and op-shops until I can get my hands on them. Australian director Bruce Beresford optioned this book to make into a movie and I wish he would hurry up and make the movie.



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