One of the reasons often given for why writing by women is not as visible as that by men is that women tend to write about domestic life while men tend to discusses Important Things. But if Australia’s favourite novel, Tim Winton’s CLOUDSTREET is not, at its core, a novel about domestic life then I’m a pot of petunias. Despite this, while Winton’s novel is on school curricula, has been expensively adapted for television and has topped reader and writer polls for two decades, I had to fight the tiger guarding a dis-used lavatory in the basement of the closed branch of the library to find a copy of Wendy James’ THE STEELE DIARIES. I can’t help but wonder if good old-fashioned sexism hasn’t got more to do with this familiar disparity of visibility than the level of domesticity depicted.
Nevertheless for my troubles I was rewarded with a thought-provoking novel exploring the tensions that occur when three women want something different out of life than what is expected of them.
In the present day Ruth is a doctor living in the city with her partner and his son. Her father has recently passed away and she is contacted by a writer wondering if she now has access to her mother’s diaries. Unaware that any such diaries exist she heads to her childhood home in the country to search. Her mother, Zelda, was a famous children’s book illustrator who died when Ruth was a child and the prospect of learning more about her mother is alluring. The present-day storyline is then interspersed with extracts from Zelda’s diaries which start in the 1950’s when she was living with her adoptive parents and about to go to boarding school. Her biological parents are both artists whose temperaments do not allow them to live together or look after a small child so they give Zelda to a couple of wealthy art patrons unable to have any children of their own. Towards the end of the book there are passages of Zelda’s mother Annie’s life, as imagined by her daughter.
All three women are unconventional and James has made their respective struggles because of this into compelling reading largely because there is no judgement in her depiction (though all three women face plenty of judgement from their fellow characters). We are shown the expectations of society as well as those the women have for themselves, and the choices that are made, the paths that are tried and abandoned. We see the difficulty these choices bring with them and the personal cost of wanting something too much. I finished the book a week ago and there is a passage that I still can’t stop thinking about. Annie is talking to the woman to whom she will give her daughter about a physical fight she has had with her husband
“…But I do know that when he finally lost his temper, when he put his fingers around the back of my neck, when he ground my face into the table, I was glad…And then I wanted more…All he really cares about is his art – everything else is just peripheral. Love, me, you, Paul, his friends, his family, we’re not the core of who he is. And that’s what I wanted, Jules – I wanted to be at the centre, to make him really see me, really see me – even if that meant making him hate me.” p303-4
I’ve now read three of James’ four published novels and one trait they share is they are fantastically Australian stories. They depict aspects of our way of life, our social structures and our view of ourselves with authenticity. Although all three are set in different time periods and are of different genres each contains an element that shows our country’s somewhat strained relationship between the urban life that most people live and the rural life that, for most of the time since white settlement, has sustained the economy and made up the majority of our most celebrated artistic and literary output. There are small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business which is comforting for some but cloying for others. In THE STEELE DIARIES Zelda’s father is a famous artist born in the bush who left his country home as soon as he was able but who learns, upon his return many years later, that his birth place offers the kind of inspiration he needs to become a better artist. “How many ways has that particular Australian story played out” I wondered as I read. There’s also the beauty and harshness of the landscape; the endless summer heat, literally insufferable for some; the promise and reality of the anonymity and excitement offered by city life. There’s also the famous Australian classless society where social distinctions do exist even if they are more subtle and dynamic than those based on centuries of historical precedent.
I am in agreement with Elizabeth Lhuede that whatever THE STEELE DIARIES is, it isn’t a romance. This is not meant to denigrate that genre or its readers but this particular book simply isn’t of that genre. It’s not ‘women’s fiction’ either. Its central characters are women and those women do have relationships but women and human relationships do appear in most novels, even ones written by men. And whatever it is, it’s a bloody good read, even though it’s written by a woman.
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This is the thirteenth book by An Australian woman writer I’ve read this year. It’s still not too late to join in the challenge
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Publisher Vintage Books Australia 
Length 361 pages
Book Series standalone
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