Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2011

I for Isobel, by Amy Witting

I hadn’t meant to start reading I for Isobel just yet.  I’d begun Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance but that’s a hardback first edition and I don’t like reading those in bed in case I fall asleep with the book over my nose or under the doona and damage the pages. Paperbacks are best for reading in bed, but if I’d known how brutal Mrs Callaghan was going to be I might not have started reading I for Isobel  at midnight.  It was with great reluctance that I finally turned out the light some hours later, and I just had to finish reading it over breakfast this morning…

The story opens just before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, when she anticipates correctly that there will be no presents for her this year, just like all her other birthdays.  Her mother is a monster: cold, hard, spiteful and jealous.  Poor little Isobel grows up forever wanting to please but unable to work out how.

She takes solace in books, and too bad if the reader isn’t herself widely read – because there are countless perfectly apt allusions to works of literature great and small throughout the story.  For those of us who grew up bookish in a bookish age, this is part of the joy of Witting’s writing, but I can see from the clumsy markings on the second-hand copy I foolishly bought without inspecting its innards that its previous owner, Kade M- took no such pleasure in reading it for school.  He has laboriously highlighted the bits his teacher said were significant, and noted key themes (‘social confusion’; ‘miss use of language’ (sic); ‘discovering her lost self’; ‘can’t stop thinking’ and ‘the special group’. Poor Kade is all-at-sea amid the sparkling wit of Isobel’s new friends at the coffee shop on Glebe Road.

‘If you were a part of speech, what part of speech would you be?’ He added, blowing on his fingernails in self-congratulation, ‘I speak as a verb, a transitive verb.  And Janet there is a conjunction, a co-ordinating conjunction.’  He turned to Vinnie. ‘And you, my pet, are an adjective, naturally’. Seeing the necessity, he added, ‘You adorn.  You decorate’.

….

Isobel laughed too.
He looked at her kindly.
‘And what are you?’
She said in a small racked whisper, ‘I think I’m a preposition’.
‘Oh, do you govern?’
‘Only small common objects.’ (
p83)

Kade, for whom grammar appears to be arcane, had to highlight that ‘Diana is a past participle’ and note beside it that she is a ‘has been’ .  How sad to be denied the delight of these witty exchanges because grammar and Shakespeare and Auden are now deemed redundant!

Isobel flounders around at school, at work, and with fledgling friendships.  She’s always in a panic about being wrong, being unwanted, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.  As a child she has a brief religious conversion to a ‘state of grace’ that enables her to withstand her mother’s bullying, only to find that forbearance infuriates her mother even more.

Over the tea table on Wednesday night, her mother said resolutely, ‘I’m not going to put up with any more of this, Isobel.  I want to know what you are sulking about.’
‘I’m not sulking.’ Astonishment brought out the words clear and strong, but she felt anxious.  There was trouble coming.
‘Don’t give me any of your lies.  What are you sulking about?’
‘But I’m not. I’m not sulking about anything.’

Think of the inward light and hold on.
‘Not sulking not sulking not sulking. You answer me, what are you sulking about?’
Oh, where was it, the tone of voice that made people believed (even when they were telling lies)? Isobel could never command it. She shook her head.
‘Walking about looking down your nose too good to speak to anyone you nasty little beast.  Miss Superior I can read you like a book.  Telling me you’re not sulking you brazen little liar.  What are you sulking about?’

….

Then she saw that her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it. (p28-29)

But Isobel’s not as meek as she seems at first and her habit of self-awareness is what finally frees her to be herself.  After what has gone before, it seems facile to describe this moment as ‘coming-of-age’.

Amy Witting, A.M. (1918-2001) began writing late in life, and had her first novel, The Visit, published in 1977 when she was almost sixty. However in 1980  I for Isobel was initially accepted and then rejected by Thomas Nelson which triggered a retreat from writing fiction for ten years.  When the novel was finally published in 1989 by the more perspicacious Penguin it was immediately successful, and won the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Barbara Ramsden Award and was short-listed for the 1990 Miles Franklin Award (which went to Tom Flood’s Oceana Fine). In 1993 Witting received further recognition with the Patrick White Award, and in 1994 published her third novel A Change in the Lighting.  Maria’s War came out in 1998, and the long-awaited sequel to I for Isobel was published in 2000, the year before Witting died. Isobel on her way to the Corner Shop’ was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award 2000, and won The Age Book of the Year Award in 2000.   She did not live to see the publication of After Cynthia in 2001.

Belated recognition of her importance as an Australian author came shortly before she died when she was awarded the Australian Literary Board’s Emeritus Fellowship.  In 2002 she was also posthumously made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her ‘service to literature as novelist, poet, short story writer, and mentor to young writers’.

I am indebted to the Amy Witting website for some of the biographical details of Witting’s life.

I am one of the many who discovered Witting with delight: I read Maria’s War in 1998, Isobel on her Way to the Corner Shop in 2002 and After Cynthia in 2003, but for reasons I can’t remember I didn’t read I for Isobel when ANZ LitLovers scheduled it for March 2002.  It’s nice to know that I still have The Visit and A Change in the Lighting to track down, as well as substantial body of work in the form of short story collections.  I hope that there are readers out there who appreciate her still, as I do.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Amy Witting
Title: I for Isobel
Publisher: Penguin, 1989
ISBN: 9780141004136
Source: Personal copy, second-hand, $3.00


Responses

  1. […] Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here. […]

  2. Hi Lisa,

    I picked this book up in an op shop recently. Not sure why it caught my eye, I’d never heard of Amy Witting, but so pleased I’ve read it. Like Kade M, I perhaps missed some of the wit of her literary references. I didn’t finish high school so am a “Rita” in a sense, a late bloomer in the world of books. But ‘I for Isobel’ makes me want to read more.

    Jacqui

    • Hi Jacqui, thanking you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts:)
      I wonder if your edition had an orange Penguin spine? My eye often falls on those ones in the Op Shop and they nearly always turn out to be great reads.
      Good for you being a ‘late bloomer’ with books, don’t worry, there are plenty of people out there who finished school and university too and have never read a book since. You bring all your life experiences and wisdom to your reading, and that’s just as valuable as knowing the literary references. Enjoy the journey:)
      Lisa

  3. hi Lisa,
    i’m reading this book for school, and have been a little confused as the book seems to ‘jump’ from one idea to another with little explanation in between. your post has cleared a little bit of it up for me so thankyou.

    • You’re welcome, Quintin, and thank you for taking the time to comment.
      You will find that modern writers tend to do this ‘jumping about’ a bit, but if you relax and read on, and sometimes re-read a bit, you will find that it comes together. A bit like movies do, where scenes often don’t follow a neat chronological order either, with flashbacks and scenes that seem disconnected until you see the matching pieces or get a crucial piece of information. Game of Thrones is like this, there are odd little scenes here and there that seem to have nothing to do with anything and then in the next episode you get the Ah-ha! moment.
      I find that it helps to make short notes sometimes if I’m really confused. There’s a book by Don DeLillo called Falling Man which made no sense at all to me until I took notes of events and characters, and then I found that it made perfect sense.

  4. Hello there,
    I am studying this novel at school this year and it is confusing in all the right ways. I enjoyed the way Witting jumped in between each chapter, as if her intention was only to give an insight to the life of Isobel.
    I do, however, have a few questions for you.
    My first is regarding the setting, Witting seems to have placed Isobel somewhere in the 20th century (maybe 1950’s). So, I was wondering, if you had any ideas as to where and when this novel was set?
    The other query I had was regarding the structure of the novel. Should I view the different insights into Isobel’s life almost like short stories, all interrelated, or as one cut up into sections. Because, as I see it, the five chapters are quite different. It seems Witting has split the book up into chapters to indicate change or the like.
    Oh, and can you comment on the beginning of chapter 5, because I’m not sure what to make of that yet.

    • Hello Sandy, and welcome! But I am so sorry, I read this book three years ago, and that’s about 600 books ago for me. I can’t really remember the sort of detail you need.
      However, I think you will find that once you get to school those sort of details will sort themselves out. Your teacher will clarify any confusions and help you to understand the structure as well.
      What I think you should concentrate on at this stage is: what is your response to this child’s situation and how she deals with it? Your thoughts about that are what will make your essays original and interesting to read.
      What do you think Isobel felt, for example, when she realised that she was making her mother suffer by ‘withholding relief’? That’s an extraordinary insight for a young girl, a degree of emotional intelligence that she has only achieved through intense suffering herself. I quoted the scene above because I could imagine myself being in that situation and wanting revenge against this cruel mother, and feeling a sense of glee that at last I had found a way of getting back at her – but that’s not how Isobel responds. She feels pity. Perhaps also consider how she felt when she realised that religion and its message of grin-and-bear-it wasn’t going to help her in her situation. It seemed to me when I read it that this scene shows us that Isobel learns that no one else can help her but herself.
      Amongst the other books (or films?) you have for this year, there will be one, maybe more, that explore similar themes, and you can prepare your ideas by looking for similarities and differences – not just at plot level or characterisation, but also in how the themes have been presented.
      Enjoy your year, it sounds as if your teachers have chosen wonderful books for you to explore. I remember every one of the books that I studied for my Year 12 and I love them still!


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