Amanda Lohrey writes interesting stuff across a range of genres. I’ve enjoyed her contributions to Quarterly Essay and she’s the author of five novels beginning with The Morality of Gentlemen in 1984 and The Reading Group in 1988 which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize. Camile’s Bread was shortlisted for the MF in 1996 and won the ALS Gold Medal and the Victorian Premier’s Prize while The Philosopher’s Doll was longlisted in the Miles Franklin and the IMPAC in 2005.
Vertigo (2008), however, although well reviewed everywhere including here on this blog seems (according to Lohrey’s page on Wikipedia) to have been ignored in the awards and I think this is a great pity because it was a memorable book that explored contemporary dilemmas. (See Ramona Koval’s discussion about it on The Book Show). Perhaps it was because it was a novella?
Undeterred, Lohrey has persisted with short fiction with a new collection of short stories entitled Reading Madame Bovary (to which I owe my recent discovery of Flaubert’s classic novel). Here I have to start with a word about the rather unappealing cover – what’s the connection between loafing by the pool and the title? Or the theme of transitions and transformations which unites the collection? It has nothing to do with the story which gives the book its title either…
The story which gives the collection its title is about a young woman called Kirsten who – too soon in a new relationship with a schoolteacher – finds herself cooped up on a canal boat in foul English weather with a bunch of school students. Lohrey captures the ghastliness of this claustrophobic experience so perfectly I wasn’t quite convinced by Kirsten’s transformation once she recognises her own narcissistic fantasies are analogous to Emma Bovary’s. Trapped on a boat with a depressed adult and tiresome adolescents I think I myself might have dived into the gloomy depths to escape, but Kirsten becomes quite jolly about it all…
I enjoyed Primates more. Lohrey, as in her novels, is good at dissecting the angst of modern life, and in this story her central character Kay has angst in spades. Her mother christened her Isadora, after Isadora Duncan, but Kay can no more do carefree spontaneity than she can cook an interesting dinner now that she has plaintive children and a frantic schedule of work and domestic responsibility. There are some hilariously funny sequences with Winton her boss who wants to introduce Japanese bonding techniques for his employees but it is the detritus of modern life and Kay’s poignant acceptance of life’s limitations that I found so engaging.
Some of the stories have been published elsewhere, in Overland, New Australian Stories, Best Australian Stories, Scripsi and Bodyjamming but collecting them as coherent whole works well. Still, I’d like to see Lohrey return to the novel or a novella before long - I like her explorations of Australian character and the longer form is better suited to that.
Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: Reading Madame Bovary
Publisher: Black Inc, 2010
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc.