An epigraph from Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected lectures (2012) sets the tone of Libby Angel’s novel, The Trapeze Act ‘what is the moment but a fragment of greater time?’ This book is composed of fragments, which, taken together, capture the desire for a complete understanding of history and the impossibility of satisfying that desire.

A well-written and entertaining début, The Trapeze Act is narrated by Loretta Lord and set in an unnamed southern Australian city – one proud of its free-settler establishment and, by the late 1960s, home to the highest murder rate in the country. The novel moves across time and space, shifting between Loretta’s memories of her trapeze- artist mother, with her exuberant accounts of the Dutch Rodzirkus; her barrister father and the notorious murder cases by which he made his fame and fortune; and the found stories of her great-great-great-grandparents, who in 1858 emigrated to the colonies in search of elephants and their ivory.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Anna MacDonald reviews 'The Trapeze Act' by Libby Angel
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Trapeze Act
  • Book Author Libby Angel
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing $29.99 pb, 240 pp, 9781925355925

Kathryn Heyman’s novel, Storm and Grace, joins the recent proliferation of fiction by Australian women that deals with intimate partner violence. Like Zoë Morrison’s Love and Freedom (2016), it depicts the development of an increasingly troubled and ultimately violent marriage, over the course of which a woman loses her sense of self. Like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015), it is an indictment of the complicity of the media and other forms of representation – film, chick lit, ‘[a]ll that Fifty Shades shit’ – in setting standards of women’s behaviour, especially as it pertains to romantic love.

What distinguishes Storm and Grace is its narrative voice and reliance upon mythological forms of storytelling. This book is about the stories we tell ourselves and others. As such, it comprises layers of – often conflicting – narrative. On the surface, this is the story of free-diver Storm Hisray (the ‘deepest man in the world’) and marine biology student Grace Cain, who meet and instantly fall in love. In response to Storm’s plea that she ‘live deep’ with him, Grace abandons her studies in Sydney and travels to an idyllic Pacific island where they live and dive together.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Anna MacDonald reviews 'Storm and Grace' by Kathryn Heyman
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Kathryn Heyman’s novel, Storm and Grace, joins the recent proliferation of fiction by Australian women that deals with intimate partner violence. Like Zoë Morrison’s ...

  • Book Title Storm and Grace
  • Book Author Kathryn Heyman
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen & Unwin $29.99 pb, 360 pp, 9781743313633

The Birdman’s Wife is about passion, obsession, and ambition. Narrated by Elizabeth (Eliza) Gould, the novel relates her marriage to, and creative partnership with, zoologist John Gould. Opening with their meeting at the Zoological Society of London in 1828, Eliza’s narrative charts the years of her collaboration with Gould – including the time spent in the Australian colonies classifying and illustrating the native birdlife – as a result of which she came to be celebrated ‘not just [as] a wife and mother’, but as a zoological illustrator in her own right.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Anna MacDonald reviews 'The Birdman's Wife' by Melissa Ashley
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    The Birdman’s Wife is about passion, obsession, and ambition. Narrated by Elizabeth (Eliza) Gould, the novel relates her marriage to, and creative partnership with ...

  • Book Title The Birdman’s Wife
  • Book Author Melissa Ashley
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Affirm Press $32.99 hb, 390 pp, 9781925344998

As we step out of the house,’ writes Virginia Woolf, in her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, ‘we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.’ Into the anonymous crowd Woolf would have us carry that androgynous mind she champions in A Room of One’s Own (1929), a mind that is ‘resonant and porous’, one that is free and ‘wide open’ much like the mind of the walker who, away from the house, becomes ‘a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’.

For Lauren Elkin, too, walking the city is entwined with looking, subjectivity, and, ultimately, ‘the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other’. As the book’s title suggests, Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London presents the figure of the woman walker and seeks to ‘build [for her] a genealogy, or a sisterhood’. Elkin refutes those who have argued that the urban walker, or flâneur, is inherently male:

To suggest that there couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make women fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

Elkin sets out to do just that: to articulate a definition of the flâneuse that is independent of her male counterpart. Flâneuse takes the form of a series of portraits of women who walk – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle, Mavis Gallant, Agnès Varda, Martha Gellhorn, and Elkin herself. These portraits are composed of biographical material, urban history, and close readings of the writing, artwork, and films of Elkin’s chosen flâneuses interspersed with her own experiences of reading these women and the cities they have walked. Via her engagement with their lives and works, Elkin establishes a definition of the flâneuse that incorporates the various forms of movement, trespass, and freedoms to be found by a woman at street level. For Elkin, the flâneuse ‘voyages out and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women’.

It is with this emphasis upon home and belonging that we get to the heart of Elkin’s conception of the flâneuse, because each of these women is writing out of a species of exile. Rhys suffers ‘reverse exile’ and is cast adrift in her ‘foreignness’; Sand ‘refused to be placed’; Calle, lost, begins ‘following people to have something to do’; Gallant, a Canadian in Paris, is ‘a foreigner’; Varda perceives Paris through the eyes of a ‘provincial’, and the protagonist of her film Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) ‘is out of place from the moment the film begins’; Gellhorn is ‘permanently home-building, permanently homeless’; Elkin, herself an American living in Paris, views London ‘with my outsider’s eyes’ and takes up residence (‘marooned’) in Tokyo’s ‘gaijin (foreigner) ghetto’; even Woolf, whom we have come to consider so at home in Bloomsbury, is at first ‘homesick’ for Kensington. And the remedy for homesickness, for being foreign, lost, out of place? Walking, which, helps to orient you, to come to know the city – any city – from the inside.

Denhaag kunstwerk flaneur 280Flâneur by van Theo van der Nahmer at Lange Voorhout, The Hague (Wikimedia Commons)This is the great strength of Elkin’s book and her conception of a flâneuse who, by walking out her front door, by claiming her right to roam freely, effectively puts herself out of place, shedding, in Woolf’s words, ‘the self our friends know us by.’ The flâneur, according to Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), ‘set[s] up house’ in the crowd. Elkin’s flâneuse rather abandons her house for the crowd: ‘as street haunters we become observing entities, de-sexed, un-gendered’. Out of her (private) place, the flâneuse makes the transition from ‘being “the object of the look” to “the subject who looks”’.

Elkin focuses on the empowering potential of the city streets, and ‘the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. There are glimpses of the gendered violence often associated with the street: Varda’s Cléo asks a female taxi driver, ‘you aren’t afraid at night?’; Woolf’s Rose Pargiter encounters a leering man (‘The enemy!’) on her first independent ‘prowl’; and the book’s epilogue examines Ruth Orkin’s 1951 photograph of Ninalee Craig, surrounded by wolfish men, on a street in Florence. However, these are brief diversions from the dominant narrative of liberation and independence. Ultimately, Cléo’s taxi driver is ‘not afraid of much’, Rose makes a game of her encounter, and Craig insists that Orkin’s photograph is ‘a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!’ In this context the omission of, for instance, Rob Bliss’s 2014 video 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman, is surprising. But this is not to detract from the importance of Elkin’s study, or the pleasure to be gained from reading it. It is to be hoped that the genealogy of walking women Elkin has begun to build in this volume will grow and that flâneuses will continue to abandon the house for the anonymity of the restless street.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Anna MacDonald reviews 'Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London' by Lauren Elkin
  • Contents Category Society
  • Custom Highlight Text

    As we step out of the house,’ writes Virginia Woolf, in her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, ‘we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of ...

  • Book Title Flâneuse
  • Book Author Lauren Elkin
  • Book Subtitle Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Chatto & Windus $35 hb, 317 pp, 9780701189020
Page 2 of 2