The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

Published: 30th March 2009 (print)/10 September 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Text Publishing/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 233/5 hours 56 minutes
Narrator: Deidre Rubenstein
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sydney in the late 1950s. On the second floor of the famous F.G. Goode department store, in Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks, the women in black are girding themselves for the Christmas rush. Lisa is the new Sales Assistant (Temporary). Across the floor and beyond the arch, she is about to meet the glamorous Continental refugee, Magda, guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women in Black is a classic.

This is a curious book. It was a decent read, the characters were all unique in their own way and yet have the wonderful conformity of the 1950s, and the era comes to life with St John’s words. I am caught between liking it and thinking it was just ok. Somewhere in the 2.5 star field because somehow I couldn’t give it a three.

If I stopped listening I found myself forgetting I was reading it at all. There was nothing in the story to get me back into it, and yet I didn’t hate it while I read it. I wasn’t bored per se, it’s just that nothing happens. I think it was the final third or even further when something happened that I finally got into it, and even then it’s not much. I think that was more the ending coming to a head so it felt conclusive.

This is a novel that is character driven, certainly more so than plot. I certainly have nothing against character driven novels, I think though that enjoyment comes from having characters that interest you so you want to read about their lives. I enjoyed Magda, and Lisa was endearing, but so few others piqued my interest. I felt two or three of these women took centre stage and felt more real than others which may have had something to do with it.

I did love the writing style. St John’s words are elegant and natural without being formal or unnecessarily complicated. The language puts you into this era and it separates the characters from one another with ease, almost so you don’t even notice it. This is emphasised by Rubenstein’s narration. Her use of voices and tone brought this story to life and highlighted St John’s beautiful words. There is slight humour but not enough to be a distraction, and the conversations are often humorous simply for their stark contrasts to modern times. This language was also why I enjoyed the ending. St John concludes this novel with style and it was a seamless ending that suited the characters she had created. There was a heartfelt sentimentality that gave extra meaning to all that had come before it, all through the characters she uses to bring this story together.

Oddly enough, I also found the obituary at the end of my audiobook quite enjoyable. I enjoyed listening about St John and her life from someone who knew her. It was interesting too because I learnt that the book was actually published in 1993. I was impressed because St John captures the language and the feel of the 50s remarkably well. It didn’t feel forced or over the top and there was class and charm in her words that she managed to recreate the era remarkably well.

I will be interested in the movie now (retitled Ladies in Black) because I would like to see how they portray this, if not for the story, but to see these wonderful cocktail frocks for myself.

You can purchase The Women in Black via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible