WOMAN IN A LAMPSHADE by Elizabeth. Jolley


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Uneven as a novelist (see The Well, above), British-born Australian writer Jolley is if anything slightly less impressive in this collection of stories (first published in Australia in 1983). Here, in occasionally vivid portraits of sad/desperate/eccentric lives, pathos too often slips over into mawkishness--while the dollops of quirkiness seem self-conscious and strained. Psychopathology is heavily treated in three stories: a half-witted woman, on trial for double-homicide, is defended by her husband--in a long, stagy appeal, complete with flashbacks; ""Two Men Running"" is an unconvincing study of madness (involving incest and matricide); and, in ""The Libation,"" implausible coincidence leads a woman to the room where her bygone lesbian lover has just died--and to suicide. Two sentimental pieces (one of them full of corny gimmicks) feature lonely mothers yearning for connection with far-off children. Only one story, in fact, delivers pathos with effective starkness--""Dingle the Fool,"" about two sisters' ties to their retarded brother; and two other pleasant, simple tales offer a poor soul longing for, and eventually attaining, the possession of land. (""All land is somebody's land"" is a recurring refrain). Elsewhere, the moods are comic, absurdist, nostalgic. Two stories (really one story written two different ways) present put-upon Mrs. Morgan, a sort of down-scale Australian Erma Bombeck who must contend with her son's goofy, sloppy, selfish ways. The cartoonish title piece features an eccentric writer, too obsessed with her characters and ""My Muse"" to respond to a young hitchhiker's clumsy seduction. And two shapeless but engaging pieces seem to be evocations of the author's English Midlands childhood. Some of Jolley's strengths--sharp observation of everyday details, bright dialogue--are on display here, along with rough compassion for people on the margins of life. But few of these stories transform pathetic situations into consistently involving or fully satisfying fiction.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Penquin