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Thursday, 16 June 2011

What I am currently reading: Jane Shilling The Stranger in the Mirror

I was given this book as a present, because it’s about middle age.  I think I am its target reader.

It wasn’t an easy read.  I don’t mean that in the sense that James Joyce isn’t an easy read, or even in the sense that Lolita isn’t.  It’s not the subject matter (I am probably not alone in finding material that so nearly reflects my own situation fascinating) nor the style or structure that’s challenging, it’s more how much, and how little, she describes of herself.

A review in Mslexia Magazine commented that the book was too objective and impersonal.  I disagree.  The style is rather distancing, certainly, prone to metaphor and at times an affected.  Describing the years 20 to 50, she writes:  “Time passes, the seasons turn, the river flows idly; distracted by duty and business we fail to remark a quickening of the current…Then we look up and see that the landscape has altered…the tide has swept us downstream.” 

But the way she rails at her poor singleton son at his lax approach to his orthodontistry, admitting her continuing sense of ownership over his body; her shame and titillation at the prospect of being taken seriously as a sexual partner; her solipsistic observations on how and why she remains single, are unbearably exposing, and through her courage we are ambushed into a reflection of these same questions in our own lives.

Shilling isn’t likeable in this book.  She expects uncomfortably much from her son; she moans on about the drudgery of housework – that’s fair enough, none of us actually like it, but with Shilling, not liking housework becomes pathological.  “Angry reproaches fell from my lips like the toads and serpents from the mouth of the wicked sister in the Grimms’ fairy tale.  And I blamed my son for this, as well.  I wasn’t a harridan by nature, I screamed.  It was he who was turning me into one with his contempt for my standards, my wish to live with a degree of grace, to keep our small shared space clean and orderly.”  But it’s impossible not to admire the degree to which she allows herself to be unlikeable.

It’s difficult to have sympathy with her self-professed feminism too.  She reports having delivered “a stinging feminist lecture on the exploitation of women” and then “picking up one [her son’s] lads’ mags and discovered that half these semi-naked girls were enthusiastic volunteers, rather than professional glamour models.  So now I wasn’t quite so sure of my position on naked breasts, especially not the ones belonging to Readers’ Girlfriends”.  Let me get this right – glamour models posing in magazines in return for money – bad; readers bragging pictures of their girlfriends, for free, good.  Really? 

As I said, it’s a book that is sometimes hard to read, but it takes off and justifies itself in the last couple of chapters.  Shilling’s columnist contract has ended, she hasn’t made financial provision, she is a fifty year old woman with the best part of her working life behind her, she doesn’t know where to go, what to do next, and her son is still her dependent.  Now the crisis of middle age is given meaning; as her place in the grand scheme makes her invisible, so she must get out there,; when her biology suggests it’s time to quieten down, worldly necessity thrusts her back into the maelstrom.  She puts a sweetly brave face on it, chin-up she tells herself, as she contemplates her melancholy calculation.  “Time passes no more swiftly than it did when I was young, but I am haunted by the sense of how little of it is left.”  That’s it, that’s the point. 

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