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Fiction review: Reading Madame Bovary

readingmadamebovaryReading Madame Bovary
Amanda Lohrey
Black Inc.

I was keen to read these stories by Amanda Lohrey after admiring her novella Vertigo (2008). Better known for her novels and essays, Lohrey has put together nine stories, five of them previously unpublished, for the collection Reading Madame Bovary.

Lohrey has a remarkable ability to be lyrical and profound while keeping both feet in the here and now of Australian life. For a ‘literary’ writer, she is refreshingly comfortable with the mundane minutiae of modern life (to-do lists and washing up) and, from there, teases out the themes and issues that lie beneath the surface of contemporary consciousness.

In the first of these stories, ‘Primates’, shopping and domestic slavery sit side-by-side with sexual fantasies and dream sequences, as we follow a frustrated Sydney woman in her attempts to keep love alive. Even more than the other stories, ‘Primates’ lends itself to re-reading, to allow oneself to drift with the author through the flotsam into deeper mysterious waters. Don’t miss the fine eulogy for a doctor who helps her through an illness.

Illness and hospitals are recurring themes for Lohrey, ones that bring out some of her finest writing. In ‘The Art of Convalescence’ we watch the change of attitude as a patient in a public hospital moves from frustration and a sense of helplessness, when sick, to acceptance and empathy, when recovered. Alongside this familiar change of attitude runs an awareness of the healing power of music, ‘a coincidence of personal dilemma and lyrical power’, to use Lohrey’s own words.

The stories range widely in their settings from the English canals of ‘Reading Madame Bovary’ to the hippie commune in a remote Australian valley of ‘John Lennon’s Gardener’. Every story comes to life through its characters and the vernacular of their distinctive voices: the husband who feels inexplicable rage; the young woman who resents sleeping in ‘the bat cave’ on the canal boat; the brain surgeon toying with the idea of career change!

Each story hinges on an experience that acts as a catalyst for a change in a character. In the title story it is reading the novel Madame Bovary that causes the shift. In ‘Primates’ it is watching monkeys in the zoo. In ‘Ground Zero’ it is hearing one’s heartbeat on an echocardiogram. Around these central experiences, Lohrey uses imagery, dialogue and point of view to create rich and distinctive stories.

The final two stories are good examples of the weaker and stronger elements of Lohrey’s writing. ‘John Lennon’s Gardener’ is a nostalgic look at the hippie days and recreates the preoccupations and conversations of a 1979 commune, but the story is ultimately unsatisfying. In contrast, ‘Letter to the Romans’ is oddly convincing in its narrative of a widowed lecturer’s affair with a student’s mother, who reads to him from the Bible. There is a bold juxtaposition here of ideas and imagery that work wonderfully to free up the imagination of the reader and allow through the sense of loneliness that lies in wait, when two lives have briefly touched.

This is assured writing that does not set out to impress, but is full of insight and beauty – a book to keep, with stories that yield more each time you read them.

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