Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 7, 2011

End of the Night Girl, by Amy Matthews

End of the Night Girl is a remarkable book, I’ve never read anything quite like it.

It’s the story of Molly, a young waitress in an Adelaide restaurant, who has become obsessed by the Holocaust.  Killing time in a library to forget her lost lover (and other fraught relationships), she comes across a rather battered set of that old series, Peoples of the World(The ones with the red covers, with their simplistic summaries and inane B&W photos of ‘happy natives’ and ‘exotic’ locations.  There is a set of these somewhere in my childhood, I remember them well. )

In the volume about Poland, in the chapter entitled ‘People You Will Meet in the Jewish Village’ she becomes captivated by one of the photographs:

In the centre of the page, uncaptioned, was a photo of a girl.  She was teenaged, soft, somehow unformed, unfinished.  Her cheeks were round, her eyes pale, her head hidden by a headscarf.  Her gaze was directed above the cameraman’s head. What was she looking at?  Why is she almost smiling? Her lack of caption worried me.

Nothing about the girl. If she was a teenager in 1933, how old would she be now?  I paused.  1933.  The Holocaust was looming.  Would she even
be now?  (p81-82)

At school Molly had encountered a Holocaust Survivor, her French teacher.  She had seen a documentary about the Holocaust too, but it had failed to move her then.  Now, confronted by a girl close to her own age, for the first time Molly realises the enormity of it, and begins to read about it.  And then to write.

Unwillingly, and yet unable to stop, she writes the story of the girl.  She gives her a name, a family, and a husband and in inchoate fragments that convincingly convey the lost stories of the murdered Jews she tells the story of the vain defence of Warsaw, the ghetto, the deportation, the camp and the death march as the Germans fled the arrival of the Russians.   These events, known to all of us and yet incomprehensible, are given an immediacy by the power of Matthew’s pen and the way she has interspersed Molly’s guilt-stricken compulsion to write with the raw grunginess of her own chaotic life.

She feels guilt because the Holocaust is not her story.  She isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t ‘belong’ to her.  She feels that she has no right to rewrite someone’s life and murder but that ‘standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear that [she feels] somehow makes perfect sense’. (p212)  Her creative act begins to bleed into her own life, and – as stories do – to take on a life of its own:

It’s completely out of control.  I try to erase the idea of her but I can’t.  Her name sounds in my head and she exists.  Before long, she exists outside of my head, on the page.
She forces me to go back, to change things.
(p225)

This is the creative act of writing laid bare before us: the sassy waitress with a quick wit and a growing sense of disarray about her messy life is, against her will, a writer.  She has no control over the imaginative process nor the subject that has emerged from a chance encounter.  She feels guilt about feeling unhappy about her own life when the atrocity that haunts her is so overwhelming.

The characterisation of the restaurant staff and Molly’s non-nuclear family is brilliant, a microcosm of Australian life.  The dialogue (crude at times, but it’s authentic and mercifully not overdone) is crisp and often witty.  I loved reading the view from ‘back-of-house in the restaurant and (judging from my one hilarious experience as a waitress) it has an authenticity that comes from experience.

This is a debut novel from a writer already in control of her craft.  I can’t wait to see what Matthews will write next.

Gillian Dooley (struck by many of the same quotations as I was) reviewed it for Radio Adelaide, describing it as  ‘a novel of ideas in the best possible sense…[asking] questions it doesn’t know how to answer about the most profound issues humans have ever faced’.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Amy T. Matthews
Title: End of the Night Girl
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781862549449
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Availability:
Fishpond: End of the Night Girl
or direct from Wakefield Press


Responses

  1. It sounds fascinating, Lisa. It always feels great when you read something that is new and different, something that you haven’t encountered before. I find that because I read so much, often the stories are too similar, so when you come across something original it’s like striking gold.

    • I love discovering new writers like this!

  2. this does sound great lisa ,I always like something out of the blue ,all the best stu

    • Thanks for visiting, Stu!

  3. […] shows that it is possible for new generations to write sensitively about the Holocaust in her novel End of the Night Girl.   But it is not ever a topic to be undertaken […]


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