Review: Lemniscate by Gaynor McGrath

lemniscate.gif Gaynor McGrath
Transit Lounge, 409 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Tineke Hazel

The titles of books are meant to arrest your attention and draw you into wanting to read them. Fortunately the author, Gaynor McGrath, gives a definition of the word Lemniscate, which is both intriguing and off-putting. It makes you need to think -- and who in this age of instant information and milkfed thought, wants to think? Hopefully, those of us grown tired of "instant everything" do want to think. Lemniscate certainly does that.

The story starts with Elsie, an innocent young Australian woman who leaves her loving but strict Catholic family in the 1970s, to travel the world and find out what goes on in other countries. We meet her on the rooftop of a small hotel in Istanbul. We also meet Kiwi a New Zealand young man who is already ensconced on the rooftop. Kiwi will weave his way in and out of Elsie's life for many years to come. Elsie travels with various young companions through the Eastern countries where women are totally disregarded, unless they are not clothed in the all-enveloping burkha, and where Western young women are fair game to the aggressive and macho males.

Elsie, though, seems to escape the nastier side of life and has lots of adventures with the situations she finds herself in. Her gentle innocence combined with common sense and respect for the cultures she experiences somehow seem to protect her from the negative energies which surround her at times. We get to see the various countries and their cultures through her enquiring mind and interested and observing eyes.

At length she arrives back in Australia to her loving but hide-bound Catholic family in Adelaide. She is appalled at her parents' controlling influence over her siblings. When visiting her brother in Sydney, she understands why he will not go back to Adelaide to live with his partner, as their parents would never cope with the fact that their firstborn son is gay.

Elsie becomes engaged to a young Catholic Adelaide doctor who is more interested in what the Pope decrees should happen when engaged couples court, than having a raunchy good time with Elsie who is more than willing. In the end she breaks up with him and travels to Queensland helping to skipper a yacht to Townsville. She has a good time with the skipper but when he is more interested in taking another yacht further round the Australian coast than taking Elsie's desires into consideration, she drops him too and hitch-hikes back along the Queensland coastal towns. In one town she lives on the beach for some months and finds her former friend Kiwi in a group just lately arrived. The attraction this time is mutual. Unfortunately they have to part the next day and Elsie loses Kiwi's address. She finds herself happily pregnant, travels to Sydney to try to find Kiwi but has no luck. The baby arrives in due course and when he is about a year old she decides to go to Greece as she heard from someone that Kiwi was living there now.

She settles on one of the Greek islands and though the life is rough and primitive, it is satisfying to her soul. After a year or more she gets the dreadful news her young brother has been killed and she goes back to Adelaide. Some months later she and the family go to Sydney for a wedding and her life takes yet another twist for a very satisfying ending of the story.

The use of the first person and the present tense, gives this book the feeling of an autobiography. The story deals with racial differences and sensitivity to other cultures, female freedoms and restrictions and the painful growth away from the Catholic doctrines Elsie has been brought up with. It also gives an insight into the sadness produced in families when parents still adhere to outmoded ideals for their children; Elsie does manage to shake her parents loose over one or two entrenched ideas. It is very reminiscent of the late 60s and early 70s era when young Australians started to travel overseas and did more hitch-hiking than their older siblings, who had mainly undertaken the "grand tours" to Britain - still considered the Home country then.

The story is beautifully descriptive and sensitively seductive. A very good read.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 11, 2008 3:56 PM.

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