"Sydney Morning Herald,
Saturday, February 28, 1987
A Catholic girlhood seen afresh
by Jennifer Dabbs
McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books, 258pp
reviewed by Dianne Johnson
There are many accounts of growing
up poor, powerless & Catholic. Yet Jennifer Dabbs' first novel is
remarkably fresh & funny.
Jennifer Dabbs - the writer of novel - Beyond
The main character in th4e novel
is Mary Kathleen Mitchell, usually known as Katie. She is an intelligent
girl & finds the constantly intruding adult world around her curiously
unwilling, or unable to give her the answers.
Katie is the only child of Mae, a
prim, frugal & ambivalent mother, & Bill, a kindly, compassionate & loving
father. While Bill is away at the war (WW2), Mae packs up her belongings
& with Katie moves from Sydney back to the bosom of the Clancy family in
Could be - town where Clancys lived - when
prosperous - in country pub
This extended family's absorption
with trivia & pettiness is relentless, relieved only when one of its
members tries to break free. There are a few attempts & high drama
ensues. The Catholicism of the family is used to justify all manner of
tedious & inane behaviour in the guise of respectability.
centre back - could be - Clancy - old devi
Bill, however, having married Mae
on the basis that he would try to convert to Catholicism, finds the
reality of doing so, increasingly untenable. Despite his daughter's
prayers, his wife's pleadings & the rest of the family's barely concealed
barbs, he steadfastly refuses to embrace the one true faith. 'It's the
confession part", he quietly reveals to Katie one day. "I just can't cop
the bit confessing your sins, saying a few prayers & everything's 'hunky
dory' ... I think I believe in God, but it's a bit hard to see the
Almighty as being all loving & merciful when you've been through a war."
Could be - Clancy matriarch
Dabbs' eye for fine detail is
never better than when she dscribes the ageless nuns who figure so
prominently in Katie's life. Sister Philip for example, is one of the best
teachers at Stella Maris, the school where Katie wins a scholarship. She
was "a strange demented creature", muses Katie, "her wimple was always
askew & she barged around the corridors tripping over her rosary beads."
Could be - Clancy mature age bachelor son
As well as overseeing all school
activities, th nuns seated in neat rows, kept a vigilant eye on school
dances. At her first dance, Katie wore a modest pink taffeta ballerina
dress, its skirt held out by a stiff petticoat. Unlike some of her peers,
she managed to pass Mother Julian's hawk-like inspection, but was aghast
at being left a wallflower, deserted & betrayed by her best friend who,
despite promises to the contrary, was seen flirting on the cance floor
"like a skittish horse" with a tall spidery creature.
Could be - Clancy matriarch & daus & gr son
Katie's search for herself is
plagued with the gracelessness & gaucherie that teenagehod seems to demand
so often. Her overwhelming concern with sin reminded me of a girlfriend I
had once. .........
Katie's great love of music is a
thread throughout the novel & signals a path to a quieter, more peaceful
self. Her discovery that she is musically talented, has perfect pitch &
has Italian origins is extremely significant for her, & coalesces in her
passion for Italian opera both on & off the stage.
Could be - Mae Mitchell & dau Katie
Nothing quite prepares the reader
for the final chapters in this novel. Katie's short-lived but rapturous
love affair with Silvio, the handsome & debonair opera star, reads as if
it were straight from the very heart of romance land. It is the ultimate
girlhood fantasy, of gentle deliverance from the wilderness & clumsiness
of virginity to the hearth & home of loving, passionate & expert sex. That
is, until mother Mae finds out.
Could be - Katie Mitchell goes on stage
And then, all hell breaks loose.
Katie's humiliation is truly awful. Mae's anger knows no bounds as she
revengefully recruits every last member of the family, the local priest &
the school nuns to punish, shame & ridicule her daughter. Not even father
Bill can ward off the attacks this time.
Could be Katie Mitchell - redeemed - & parents
The novel ends abruptly, with the
stage set for Katie's avenging rebellion. I look forward to Jennifer
Dabbs' next novel.
Dianne Johnson is a Sydney