Madeleine St. John’s witty, sprightly comedy of manners, set in Sydney in the late 1950’s, is propelled by the buoyant and effervescent performance of narrator Deidre Rubenstein, who is more than up to the task in portraying Fay, Lisa, and Patty, the novel’s three central characters - all employees of Goode’s department store - united by their jaded outlook on the opposite sex and the unexpected twists and turns their personal and professional lives undergo during the whirlwind Christmas shopping season in this light-hearted and diverting audiobook.
The women in black are run off their feet, what with the Christmas rush and the summer sales that follow. But it's Sydney in the 1950s, and there's still just enough time left on a hot and frantic day to dream and scheme... By the time the last marked-down frock has been sold, most of the staff of the Ladies' Cocktail section at F. G. Goode's have been launched into slightly different careers.
With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St. John conjures a vanished summer of innocence.
©1994 Madeleine St.John; (P)2009 Bolinda
A little gem...shot through with old-fashioned innocence and sly humour." (Vogue)
"A highly sophisticated work, full of funny, sharp and subtle observations...a small masterpiece." (Sunday Times, London)
When Text Publishing recently re-released Madeleine St John's The Women in Black, I was thrilled. My copy of the original edition, published in the early 1990s, was borrowed by someone who enjoyed it so much she never troubled to return it, and I was always extremely annoyed, because it is a truly marvellous novel that deserves to be recommended to a wide audience as a minor Australian classic.
The story covers six weeks in the lives of a group of women who work in a thinly fictionalised version of Sydney's flagship David Jones store in the 1950s. Each is at a different watershed in her life. Lisa (her name is really Lesley, but Lisa is more romantic) is a schoolgirl waiting for her matriculation results. Faye is a burnt out party girl, always falling for Mr Wrong, and seeing her chances of settling down with Mr Right fading rapidly as she moves into her thirties. Patty is trapped in a boring marriage with a drongo, with whom she shares little but a desperate desire for children who have never come. And in the midst of everything is Magda, the exotic Slovenian 'New Australian', who rules over Model Gowns like a benevolent despot, and who manages to be fairy godmother while scheming like Machiavelli behind the scenes.
It is hard to underestimate the charm of The Women in Black. On the one hand it is an intelligent feel-good novel, but it was written by a uniquely talented stylist, and manages to be far more than that. It is one of those rare books that can be recommended to practically anyone; so elegantly written, so wryly observed, and so beautifully peopled with thoroughly believable characters that it bears repeated re-readings. As an evocation of a particular moment in Australian history, it is hardly to be excelled. The audio performance was thoroughly enjoyable, even by somebody who has read the book as many times as I have. Please, give this slice of literary sunshine a go. It is hard to imagine being disappointed.
This is the sort of book that can be described as a 'little gem'. It's about the women in the black clothes that were de rigueur for sales staff in the department stores for the wealthy in the 1950s.
Temporary assistant Lesley ('I want to be called Lisa') nervously awaiting her Leaving results, arrives and becomes part of the dress section. All her workmates have their stories, life styles so far apart from their monied customers. There is an interweaving of support and care among some of the women, while others are detached and present their work-face only.
Some of the lives are pleasingly resolved through moving into paths of what will 'surely be' love and security -- and the author, St John, gently determines that these paths should support their individual hopes and dreams.
The reader, Diedre Rubinstein, has a melodious and versatile voice and delightfully acts out all these endearing characters.
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