227 pages: SC: rrp $24-95
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Miniscule victories, quiet heroism, seismic reverses, a fling at happiness, stoicism in the face of catastrophe, wretchedly few wins in life’s lottery with more than a fair share of disappointment, discouragement and tragedy. This, in essence, is The Seamstress.
It is Geraldine Wooller’s great gift to articulate, with compassion but without sentimentality, the lives of a family which she observes with an unblinking gaze. Utterly free of sentimentality, The Seamstress is a remarkable achievement which kept this reader glued to the turning pages. I read it in a single day and into the night.
Wooller’s language is the essence of realism; it has the indelible tinge of truth. But it
is not the sort of novel for those who like the narrative to unfold in a strictly chronological way. This is quite different. The book is made up of a series of vignettes, often painfully and disconcertingly detailed. It’s rather like a chaplet of carefully polished literary gems, each set near-perfectly.
Newspaper reports often carry the words ‘ordinary people’ and, if the characters in this novel were flesh and blood, they, too, would probably be thought of in this way. But I’m not sure if there are any such beings. Have you met an ordinary man or woman? I certainly haven’t – and they definitely don’t inhabit this book.
In The Seamstress, we find vignettes, episodes that reveal with startling, even unnerving, clarity those moments that might for years following – generations, perhaps – scar a family history. Here, they come thick and fast.
I will not reveal any of these moments in this review. It is the author’s privilege to announce these disquieting upheavals which she does with unflinching honesty of purpose. What family is without moments such as these?
Running through the story like a fine thread is a near-faultless recounting of the dismantling of a much loved mother’s mind – and the very real sense of loss, bereavement even – which occurs before there is a physical death. It is like mourning for a mind that has, to all intents and purposes, died – and it is Wooller’s great gift to articulate the grief in coming to grips with a calamity the incidence of which is multiplying with frightening rapidity as medicine finds ever new ways to keep the body alive but lags far behind in preserving the disintegrating brain and a sense of dignity.
Jo observes her mother Willa’s descent into unreality with a restraint that is masterly. In a sense, all the other inter-family upheavals are a side show to the devastating main game. In its lucidity and poignancy, Woollard’s tale calls to mind William Styron’s Darkness Visible in which he describes his real-life battle with depression.
If you read no other book this year, let it be this. It is too satisfying to overlook.