Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2022

The Tower, by Carol Lefevre

Composite novels a.k.a. short story cycles, can be tricky things to read: though they have the form of short stories the reader can’t just ‘move on’ to the next one because you know that the stories are linked in some way.  You need to remember who’s who and what their issues are, so that you can discover the connections so cunningly woven into the text. So it is with The Tower, Carol Lefevre’s latest venture with this form, following on from the highly regarded Murmurations (2020, see my review).

This is the blurb:

Widowed after a long marriage, Dorelia MacCraith swaps the family home for a house with a tower, and there, raised above the run of daily life, sets out to rewrite the stories of old women poorly treated by literature.
Throughout this winding story, Dorelia and the elderly artist Elizabeth Bunting are sustained by a friendship that reaches back to their years at art school, and bonded by the secrets of a six-month period when they painted together in France.
The loneliness of not belonging, of being cut adrift by grief, betrayal, or old age, binds these twelve connected stories into a dazzling composite novel. Within its complex crossings and connections, young and old inhabit separate yet overlapping firmaments; grown children, though loved and loving, cannot imagine their parents’ young lives. For most, the past is not past, but exerts a magnetic pull, while future happiness hinges on retreat, or escape.

The character of Dorelia captured my attention from the outset.  I liked her appearances in the stories best of all.  Those of us who’ve had the experience of caring for elderly parents are only too familiar with the emotional tug of war between enabling them to maintain independence and providing care.  Dorelia is a feisty woman whose choice of a tower to live in for her old age disturbs her adult children.  From the moment she was widowed she was alert to their plans for her future:

When her Geordie died, it had been a shock to come up against that sudden, implacable absence.  It was like being slapped hard by an icy hand.  Then, in the terrible limbo between his dying and the funeral, she’d caught glimpses of him everywhere, so that coming indoors at dusk, as she reached for the light switch, Geordie’s shadow would darken his favourite armchair; in their bedroom, she surprised a flash of his old mustard corduroy coat sleeve in the wardrobe mirror.  Every mirror in the house held fragments of Geordie, even the little circular hand-mirror with the crack in it he had used for shaving.

Dorelia would have covered them all with cloths if it hadn’t been for the children.  They would have pounced on that as a sign that she was not holding up — she imagined Laurence and Hannah frowning and reaching for their phones.  Apparently, they stored within those devices lists of suitable places they researched on their parents’ behalf. (p.2)

(Yes, been there, done that, and my mother in particular was not best pleased about it.)

It was Dorelia’s great good fortune to have stumbled upon the tower house during a rare window of inattention from her children. (p.23)

Ha!

Dorelia and her friend Bunty are creatives and in their early years they struggled with the conflicting demands of art and relationships.  Their career paths diverged but their friendship endured.  And I loved this aspect of the book: the enduring friendships of older women is such a special phenomenon, it’s beautiful to see it depicted in fiction with such perception.

Over tea and doughnuts, Dorelia reveals her ambition to rewrite the stories that put old women in a  poor light, the wicked stepmothers and the evil queens of folk lore, starting with Rapunzel’s witch, a figure from fairy tale who doesn’t have a reader with even a smidgeon of sympathy.  Bunty understands this immediately.

Bunty gave a snorting laugh.  ‘She suffers from childless woman syndrome,’ she said.  ‘I’ll be cheering you on if you can redeem the poor creature.’

Dorelia patted Bunty’s hand that wasn’t holding the doughnut, depositing a glitter of sticky sugar.  They had often discussed the suspicion that attached to childless women; it was ages-old, a malign and subtle undercurrent.  Even now, when many women were childless by choice, you could still rub up against that prejudice, though at Bunty’s age it tended to manifest as pity.  (p.26)

There is a long history between these two that is so exquisitely wrought in this excerpt, prompted by Dorelia’s musings on how her life might have been different if she’d devoted herself to art instead of husband and children.

‘I will write, too’, she said.

‘You should never have abandoned your memoir.’

Dorelia had finished her first doughnut and was wondering whether she should save the second for when her energy levels dipped in the late afternoon. ‘Not the memoir,’ she said. ‘At least, not for the moment.’

Bunty pulled a face. ‘Do you mean to say you’re going to allow our wonder years to be ploughed under into the great nothingness?’

‘It’s been so long since I wrote anything.’ Dorelia’s eyes grew wistful, and she reached for the second doughnut.  ‘I thought I’d get my hand in first with something subversive.’

Bunty rocked forward in her chair and clapped, two sharp smacks, a familiar gesture of approval.  She raised her eyebrows, or the place on her high pale forehead where her eyebrows had once been two beautiful dark arcs.  The thinning of their brows made old women’s faces look naked, thought Dorelia, although it threw the emphasis back onto their eyes, and her friend’s delicately moulded, deeply set, prune-black eyes, were lit with enthusiasm.

Where would she be without this friendship, Dorelia wondered? A shiver went through her whenever she thought about which of them would die first.  Selfishly she hoped she would go before her friend, but on the other hand it gutted her to think of Bunty alone.

Bunty was waiting, doughnut poised, for Dorelia to explain.  (p.25)

There is more to The Tower than the Dorelia’s story.  There are other characters and their stories are a treat in store for readers to discover. Her daughter Hannah, for example, has her own poignant story, but there are others whose lives entwine in unexpected ways.  There’s a thread about some missing pearl earrings which offers hope that the cold case of a murdered girl might be resolved.  The unimaginable and enduring pain of those not knowing what happened to their loved one reminded me of Stephen Orr giving life to the grainy images of lost children in Time’s Long Ruin and Sarah’s quest to find her missing sister in Philip Salom’s The Fifth Season.

(#Newsflash, BTW, Salom has a new novel out in November with Transit Lounge: it’s called Sweeney and the Bicycles.  I’m going to try and read one of his early novels beforehand.)

Each short story in The Tower is prefaced by a B&W photograph, mostly of houses which illustrate the preoccupation with towers.  In the Acknowledgements, Lefevre writes:

Once you start thinking about towers, they are everywhere, double-edged, of course, for a place that provides refuge may also confine.  A family can be a tower, as can a marriage, childhood, friendship, memory, the past. Home, if one can find it, is always a tower, which is why the inclusion of tower-like features in Australian colonial architecture, as well as in contemporary suburbia, represents so much more than mere whimsy.

Old age, it we reach it, may be the final tower. (p.250)

Indeed.

Author: Carol Lefevre
Title: The Tower
Cover design: Deb Snibson, MAPG
Photography by the author
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781925950625, pbk.,300 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

 


Responses

  1. I loved Murmurations. As you know I like short stories, and I particularly like linked collections because, in a way, they offer the best of both worlds.

    I’ve read all your post because I feel that as a collection, there will be so many options to comment on, if I get to it, that having read yours won’t really distract me! Dorelia sounds a great character. This issue of losing a partner is confronting us at the moment with three friends in their 70s having lost their spouses. Tough.

    (As for enduring friendships of older women, later this month I’m off for a two night-three day getaway with three friends – all from reading group, though two I knew beforehand, one going back to 1977. Very special friendships that have nurtured us through toddlers, childhood, adolescence, empty nest, and now retirement into our last decades.)

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    • This book made me wonder… do men have the same kind of friendships? I know they have friendships that go back decades, but do they know what the other is thinking without having to express it? Can they lift an ironic eyebrow and have the other dissolve into gales of laughter without a word being said? Do they know the ‘no-go’ moments that remain unspoken because they bring pain?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m really not sure Lisa. Mr Gums has a few decades-long friendships but I really don’t think they are at that level. I’m not there when they catch up on their own of course, but I don’t sense a lot of that – though I think, from talking to Mr Gums, that there’s some awareness of no-go zones. What I think might be missing often is the ability to ascertain when a no-go zone might in fact be a go zone.

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        • I think we need a man to answer the question!

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          • We do!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Don’t look at me. I don’t know my brothers that well, let alone friends, and there’s only one anyway whose known me – off and on – for any length of time.

              I like linked short stories. I don’t particularly like old people. Maybe I’ll run into this as an audiobook at the library.

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              • What’s wrong with old people?

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                • Yes, Bill, what? Enquiring – older – minds want to know.

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                • Old people have no spark, they don’t light up the page. Look at The Weekend, a drearier mob of drips as you’d ever want to (not) meet. Then compare it with the genuinely innovative TNWoAT.

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                • *sigh* It took me a while to work out what you are talking about… Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend v her The Natural Way of Things.
                  Have you read Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar? Loop Tracks by Sue Orr? Modern Interiors by Andrea Goldsmith? And that’s just dynamic older women, what about the sassy old blokes in Morris Lurie’s Rappaport series?

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                • Rappaport was young! Does he get older? You are taking me back a long way, though I did review one in the early days. He is a thirtyish man with a shop. Then, I think, in England, where his friend has a wife and baby. Or am I thinking of some other Rappaport?
                  I’ve read/reviewed Wolfe Is. but remember it? No.

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                • Of course he gets older! (he even has problems with his prostate.)
                  You don’t remember the strength and courage of that woman living along on Wolfe Island as the waters rise around her??

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  2. I love interlinking stories if they work these seem to Lisa

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  3. It turns out I’ve read more of them than I thought I had, so I’ve created a new category for them here on the blog.

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