The Woman in Black by Madeleine St John

Courtesy Text Publishing

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John has been called a ‘neglected Australian classic’
that all Aussies should have read but probably haven’t.
First published in Great
Britain in 1993, it was re-released in 2009 by Text Publishing, Melbourne and
was the first of four novels that St John wrote before passing away in England in
2006.
The Women in Black
 If you are familiar with the
large and luxurious Australian chain store David Jones, then you will recognise
it as one of the main players in The
Women in Black
where it is disguised as FG Goode’s Department Store.
The book is set in Sydney in
the 1960s and focuses on a number of women who all work in the Ladies’ Frock
Department of Goode’s, and who all must change into and out of their unflattering
black frocks at the start of each working day and before leaving at night.
As we follow each woman
through the stifling summer leading up to the Christmas rush and the new year
sales, St John focuses on their ordinary lives but with an extraordinary insight.  We are allowed into the homes, families,
relationships and thoughts of each woman and the result is a real treat.
Characters in The
Women in Black
Fay Baines is unmarried and
unlucky in love while her friend Patty Williams is married to the bland Frank
and craves a baby.  They work together in
Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks and are joined at the start of the book by Lesley
Miles.
Lesley (who wants to be
known as Lisa in her new role as temporary sales assistant) is an aspiring poet
who has just finished her leaving certificate exams and is awaiting the
results.  These were the days when scores
were listed in the Sydney Morning Herald for the world to read either of your
disasters and triumphs. Lisa’s results will determine her path in life –
scholarship and university or perhaps full-time sales assistant.
The most interesting of St
John’s characters is Magda the “continental” whose surname no-one can
pronounce. “It will not be imagined that Magda wore the regulation black
frock.”  Magda is described as “luscious,
svelte and full-bosomed, tailored, manicured and coiffed – a snake woman in
charge of model gowns.”
Magda puts up with a lot
from her work mates but takes it in her stride as she has bigger plans ahead
with her equally foreign husband Stefan, who is well-read and fun loving. With
her level head, astuteness and optimistic no-nonsense view on life, Magda is St
John’s triumph and leaves the reader wishing for more.
About Madeleine St John
Madeleine St John was born
in Sydney in 1963 and died in London in 2006. The Women in Black was her first novel and the only one set in
Australia. 
Her other novels were all
set in London and include A Pure Clear
Light
, The Essence of the Thing,
which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997, and A Stairway to Paradise, which was her final novel before she passed
away.  St John also left behind an
unfinished manuscript which was too fragmented and incomplete to publish.
The Women in Black has been
edited to include an introduction by friend and classmate Bruce Beresford and
an obituary by her friend Christopher Potter.
The Women in Black (Text Publishing Melbourne, 2009, ISBN 9781921520204, 228 pages.)  
My rating: ★★★

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