Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2014

Imago (1986), by Francesca Rendle-Short

ImagoI bought Imago last year at the Melbourne Writers Festival because the blurb intrigued me so much.   I had never heard of the psychoanalytical use of the term ‘imago’ but it sounded interesting.

imago 1. the final and fully developed stage of an insect after all metamorphoses e.g. a butterfly or beetle.
2. Psychoanal. an idealised concept of a loved one formed in childhood and retained uncorrected in adult life….

Imago is a story of love and obsession, of seduction and transformations. The threading together of skins, of bodies. It’s a story of metamorphosis, taking and eating, larvae and pupae, the risks of stagnation. Possibilities of death.

That sounds like a lot to pack into a debut novel, but the juxtaposition of metamorphosis and stagnation offers interesting possibilities for fiction.   I had enjoyed Brian Castro’s The Bath Fugues which played with the triple meaning of fugue (a psychiatric state, a musical term and C19th wanderers.) (See my review).  I thought Imago would be fascinating, and it was.

Molly Rose is an English girl who marries her idea of a husband only to find him remote, impotent and socially inept.  When she migrates from England, she leaves behind a mother who smothers her, only to form an obsessive friendship with her neighbour who is a cross between a mother-substitute and a lesbian lover.  Marj’s husband Kevin works away from home a lot, as does Molly’s husband Jimmy, leaving the women to spend a great deal of time with each other allowing their relationship to morph into something else.

It’s a sensual book.  There is a lot about fat and flesh, fabrics and flowers.  Marj cooks and shares robust meals and delicate baked specialties.  Canberra is resolutely suburban, baking in the summer heat, and Molly revels in shedding the restrictive clothing of her past.

Summer was a fine time for the body, and on a dreamy afternoon Molly was ready for some colour in her skin.  The new bathers imitated her shape in parallel horizontal elastic lines, a bubbly curve down to her buttocks.  Used to fitted suspender belts and circular stitched bras, she felt naked and loose, but remained determined to change all of that as she straightened the bow between her breasts, looking for a cleavage, for fatness.  She pressed both arms into her white bosom.  Pouted her lips.  Scanning herself in the full-length mirror, while bending one knee in mock modesty, she ignored the sight of her mother’s letter caught in the reflection.  As if in protest, she leant forward for a tube of lipstick on the dressing table.  Cherry-red, a colour Joyce loathed.  (p. 65)

Molly desires freedom but she can’t face up to some truths: she hangs out double-bed sheets on the Hills Hoist because she can’t admit that she sleeps alone, and she deludes herself about Marj’s complicity in Kevin’s unconscionable behaviour too.  Her interactions with her daughters show just how much she is in denial about some things.

The structure of the book is complex, shifting in time and place, linked by a car journey.  I found myself much more absorbed by the period when Canberra was in the ‘larval stage’ itself, the lake just a vast empty hole in the ground, the city waiting for its metamorphosis into the nation’s bush capital.   Now, it’s hard to imagine it without its stunning Parliament House, and none of its striking modern architecture.   Interestingly, Rendle-Short comments that even in its earliest days, Canberra had suburbs that were ‘better’ than others.  Social snobbery about suburban addresses seems to be endemic in Australia.

The artwork on the cover with those expressive women’s faces is just perfect – it’s by Liz Nicholson of Design Bite.  Imago won the 1997 ACT Book of the Year Award.

If you check out Rendle-Short’s website, you can see that she is a very versatile writer.  I’ve also read one of her short pieces called ‘My Father’s Body’ in The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, an anthology of  Canberran writing published during its centennial year.  (The book was kindly sent to me by Sue from Whispering Gums, thank you Sue!)  I was impressed by the courage, sincerity and humour of that piece, sharing what it’s like to cope with the vulnerability of an opinionated parent once they are struck down by Alzheimer’s.   I’m also interested in Rendle-Short’s more recent memoir-novel Bite Your Tongue which is set in Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland – an era not mined often enough in fiction, it seems to me.  (See Sue’s review at Whispering Gums).

Author: Francesca Rendle-Short
Title: Imago
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 1996
ISBN: 9781875559367
Source: Personal copy, purchased at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival


Fishpond: Imago


  1. I remember reading something about this fairly recently. I think the line was that she dreamt of worms the night before she got married and that intrigued me.
    I am also interested in your comment about there not being enough fiction set in Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland. I’m going to send that comment on to some writer friends of mine. Perhaps we can treat it as a challenge!


    • Hi Karenlee, I should explain why I think there should be more exploration of that era in Qld: I’m interested in fiction that explores important issues, and it seems to me that the JBP era was highly significant in the way that it was not only corrupt but it also suppressed dissent, and difference. It had a claustrophobic effect on the arts too. So I’m interested in what does it do to an individual and to a society when that happens? What does it do to families when people feel that they have to move interstate because they feel so inhibited by populist discrimination that they can’t bear it any more?
      If you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland you can see how she unpacks the effect that the Stasi had on the psyche of individuals and on the wider society. It didn’t just damage the people who were directly oppressed by the authorities, it damaged everybody.
      Down south, many people just thought that JBP was a bit of a joke, but he wasn’t. He was actually a very dangerous man whose attitude was that he knew what was best for Queensland and would stop at nothing to ensure that what he thought was best would happen. He was dangerous because his folksy populism made many people agree with him.
      So I think fiction that explores his pineapple dictatorship masquerading as a democracy would be very interesting indeed, but writers in Australia who do this kind of writing tend to write thrillers instead of thoughtful literary fiction.


  2. A pleasure Lisa. As you know I loved Bite your tongue. It was clearly a painful and challenging thing for her to write, and is, like “My father’s body” which of course I’ve also read, admirably honest. I’d like to find time to read her fiction.


    • Hi Sue, I’ve added the link for your review of Bite your Tongue:)


      • Oh, thanks Lisa … these writers published by independent presses need all the exposure they can get, don’t they.


        • It’s what I love to do, so many good books languish because the authors can’t get enough publicity, I love it when my readers tell me that they’ve chased up a book they’ve heard about here.


          • Absolutely, I agree. Not only does it make us feel good but hopefully authors can see that blogs are worth noticing.


  3. […] and included a couple of lovely descriptions of Canberra from the book. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also reviewed it recently. She includes a lovely description of English Molly revelling in Canberra’s […]


  4. I have “chased down” many books you have reviewed and am grateful to you for introducing me to them. I hope I can find this one. I loved Bite your Tongue.


    • Thank you, Marilyn, you’ve made my day!
      I hope this one is available in the US:)


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