Ah, here I am once again feeling a touch embittered about the fact that I’ve been misled entirely by a book’s cover. I know, I know, don’t judge a book and all that, but honestly, if we weren’t supposed to do so, then we wouldn’t have covers, would we?
I’ve had Lucinda’s Whirlwind sitting in my to-read pile for a while now, largely because literary fiction is what I gravitate towards when I’m desperate for a bookish palate cleanser, an urge that often overcomes me when I’ve overdosed on zippy but soulless “romps”, that kindly book cover quote euphemism for “trash”. Smeary, out-of-focus covers blanched in yellow and red and garnished with non-confrontational text are, of course, a shorthand for “here be a Booker contender”, which is why this one went straight into my literary pile.
But oh, cover gods, how you mock me. This book is not at all what you told me that it was, and as a result, I’m a tad affronted. It’s like that time that I went to Dish on St Kilda Road and ordered a smoked salmon salad, only to be served what was a wafer of salmon atop a single piece of spinach. Tasty enough, but rather lacking in the advertised salad bit. And Lucinda’s Whirlwind is rather the same: fresh and appealing, but not at all what I expected to stab my literary fork into.
The titular Lucinda is a blunt-speaking, socially withdrawn woman who is comforted by structure and routine: had she been born a few decades later it’s likely that an autistic spectrum diagnosis might have cropped up. She’s the veritable opposite of her sister Jayne, a soft-spoken woman who’s allowed her husband Brian to be her mouthpiece for all of her adult life, and whose home-life is a muddle of children (including a blow-in from down the road) and pets. However, when Jayne announces that she’s left for America to undertake the trip their recently deceased mother had always longed to, Lucinda is plunged into a situation that is very much at odds with her personality.
With Jayne’s husband Brian off on a work trip–one that ends up unexpectedly prolonged–and Jayne incommunicado, Lucinda is called in as temporary household matriarch, a role that brings with it all manner of painful spontaneity. Lucinda is distinctly uncomfortable to begin with, and as we learn about the curious dynamics between her and Brian, we begin to see why: is this the life that Lucinda might have led had things turned out differently? But almost immediately we see how dramatically different such a possible future might have been had Lucinda been in Jayne’s place. Rather than demurring to Brian’s chauvinist pronouncements and becoming caught up in a tragic flurry of domesticity, Lucinda outsources anything she doesn’t want to have to deal with, and turns her attention instead only to those things that interest her.
Surprisingly, these include the relationships she slowly builds with Kieran, a young boy with Down’s Syndrome, and with Wesley, the black-clad, anaemic looking kid who has claimed the couch as his new residence after his parents’ divorce. And although Lucinda is famous for her social ineptitude, she’s cuttingly incisive when she points out that her nephew might spend less time accruing “friends” on Facebook and instead spend time with Wesley, who is living virtually unacknowledged in the house:
“How many friends do you have?”
“Four hundred and fifty-six.”
“David!” Lucinda exclaimed. “You can’t possibly have that many friends!”
“But I do. You should go on it sometime, Aunty Loopy. Everyone’s on Facebook these days.”
“Wesley’s not on it,” Lucinda protested. “He’s in your living room on your couch,” she said in a meaningful tone.
“Yeah,” David reflected, a slight furrow appearing on his freckled brow. “Wes used to be on Facebook, but he only ever had three friends.”
Jayne, for her part, is finally striking out on her own in America, and making a delightful hash of things along the way. We cringe along as she struggles to calculate how much to tip a cab driver, looks the wrong way before crossing a road, and ill-advisedly takes an iron to a thin silk shirt. That Jayne struggles with these seemingly basic skills shows just how much she’s relied on Brian to be her mouthpiece and decision-maker over the years, as well as just how necessary this trip is for her. Her mother’s death has been a precipitating event for her, one that’s caused her to reconsider the person she’s become and the dreams she’s deferred for so long.
Although I identified more with Lucinda, Jayne’s struggle resonated with me a good deal: I know a woman who is very much like Jayne, a woman whose voice has been elided over the years to nothing more than a literal echo of her husband’s words. She’ll parrot whatever he says, push him forward to speak on her behalf, and defer any question or decision to him. Her world has shrunk to the family home, her conversation to nothing more than a remark about the weather. And yet this is a woman who moved overseas during her early twenties to study at university (this was unusual at the time), and who subsequently worked full-time in a demanding job while her husband looked after the children. When I asked how she had come to be the person she is today, I was told that it was possibly due to a family feud she’d become embroiled in, after which the person she was fighting with had passed away.
Death, it seems, does change people.
On the whole Lucinda’s Whirlwind is a quick and undemanding book, and with its warmth and humour and awkward familial shenanigans, I’m sure it’ll appeal to the casual chick lit/contemporary mainstream reader. However, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s somehow incomplete. The time spent in Brian’s view-point, for example, seems extraneous, and dilutes the contrast between Lucinda and Jayne. Both sisters’ narratives also feel vague and unfocused, with their vines of their stories sending out shoots and creepers all over the place, but never really deciding in which direction they want to grow. There’s not enough plot here for the book to sit comfortably within the boundaries of chick lit, but not enough depth and interior focus for it to work as a literary novel. Perhaps it was that after being tricked by the cover I, rather like a traveller who has mistakenly jumped on the wrong train, spent the whole time searching for the story that I thought I’d be getting, but I came away feeling not entirely satisfied. Or perhaps it was that despite the oft-referenced whirlwind, not enough happens to actually stir things up: what is someone meant to make of the proverbial settling dust when the dust has been stationary the whole time?
Rating: (not bad)
With thanks to Macmillan Australia for the review copy
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