Dove is a graphic designer who thinks in images, not words, and as she sits reading Wuthering Heights to her dying mother she visualises a woman and her baby travelling on a bus to the Sydney suburb of Ashfield. Dove knows that it is the late 1960s, that the woman’s name is Ellis and the baby is Charlie. She can smell the summer, and she knows the house Ellis visits as if it were her own. The image is so vivid, but Dove doesn’t know what the story is. And she is in a fever to pursue it, to write it down.
Debra Adelaide’s fourth novel is an intricate thing. It tells several stories: those of Ellis and Dove, and several intertwined short tales of coinciding lives. The novel, in fact, opens with Ellis in 1968 and the quiet suburban world of young married couples. These stifled women yearn, but the yearning is muffled, unidentifiable. Some have babies; how dare a woman yearn if she has a baby? Ellis’ story is instantly engaging, but, unsettlingly, the next chapter reveals that what you had been reading is Dove’s creation, a novel within the novel. You begin again as Dove starts enquiring into what she’s creating and why.
The Women’s Pages explores some persistent and seemingly unresolvable issues: changes to the nature of work, and how women reconcile creativity and the flourishing of “self” with the demands of motherhood and domesticity. Ellis’ dilemma in this regard seems a historical set piece, yet it still has tremendous emotional currency. Ellis, disarmingly, is named for Ellis Bell, the pseudonym of Wuthering Heights’ author, Emily Brontë. Dove read Wuthering Heights when she was a teenager, and although she is nearly 40 the novel remains “like a malaria” in her imagination. Great art is timeless. It shapes us and never lets us go. But how, asks Dove, does a lesser creator channel the urgency of her creativity? And why is the urge to create so consuming?
Embroidering one life and then embroidering another over it requires patience and skill. Adelaide has both, yet she is successful only up to a point. Her attention to detail can be over-fussy. Too much embroidery diffuses emotional power. Still, there is much to enjoy in this ambitious novel. Not least are the imagination and reflection that have helped Adelaide create something that addresses eternal issues in a fresh and uniquely Australian way.
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