Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Vera Wright Trilogy

I am reading Elizabeth Jolley's The Vera Wright Trilogy with great admiration. The book must be overdue by now, but I can't return it until I've finished the third novel.  This is why I often buy books:  I pay for the library books with my fines anyway. 

Jolley, an award-winning Australian writer whose work was briefly feted in the U.S. in the '80s and early '90s, was praised by Robert Coover, Peter Ackroyd, and Frederich Busch. Then she suddenly disappeared.  Her work went out of print here.  She kept on writing in Australia until her death in 2007.

Persea has reissued the award-winning trilogy and what a pleasure it is to find these stunning novels, My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' Wife.  Elizabeth Jolley's style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.  I can't pretend I like Vera, a hero-worshipping-nursing-student-adulterer-false-friend-unwed-mother-housekeeper who lies and cheats to get attention and makes weird lateral and downward career moves. But  I finished the first two dazzling novels, My Father's Moon and Cabin Fever, and am fascinated by the adventures of the brilliant if unreliable narrator.

In My Father's Moon, set during World War II, Vera is an unwed mother on the verge of leaving home with her daughter to work in a boarding school.  We learn this in bits and pieces in a first page of cryptic dialogue:
"Why can't the father, the father of your--what I mean is why can't he do something?"
"I've told you, he's dead."
Gradually she reveals her unadmirable story:  her school days and cruelty to a girl she calls Bulge, her often lesbian friendships in nursing school, her stealing food to gain popularity, her involvement in a strange sexual menage with a doctor and his wife, her love of music, her admiration of intellectuals, and the mess her pregnancy lands her in.  She hides her pregnancy.  Then she leaves the hospital, has her baby in a nursing home, and stays on as an unpaid maid-cook-nurse (encouraged to leave but determined to stay).

In Cabin Fever, Vera is a doctor suffering a bout of agoraphobia in a New York hotel. Looking back over her life, she retells her story, sometimes using the same words, sometimes changing some of the details, and makes us care about her survival with her baby, Helena. She scrabbles monotonously from bad job to bad job and yet the jobs are as good as she can get if she wants to keep her daughter with her.  The mundane details of work mixed with Vera's fantasies are entertaining and also grueling.  Vera grows as a person.  She understands the weave of her own stories with other people's as she did not in the first novel.

I very much look forward to reading The Georges' Wife.  

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