TEXT review

Two women coping

review by Rachel Hennessy


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Glenice Whitting
Something Missing
Made Global Publishing, London 2016
ISBN 9788494593
Pb 260pp AUD19.95


In 2015, Beth Driscoll raised the ire of three women writers by labelling them ‘middlebrow’. Her article ‘Could Not Put It Down’ for Sydney Review of Books caused Antonia Hayes, Susan Johnson and Stephanie Bishop to respond in writing and collectively (and then separately) reject the term, arguing for their right to be evaluated outside the confines of Driscoll’s parameters, defined in the following way:

We can recognise the middlebrow by a set of features. It is associated with women and the middle class. It is reverent towards legitimate culture and thus concerned with quality – the middlebrow shies away from the trashy – at the same time as it is enmeshed in commerce and explicitly mediated. The middlebrow is concerned with the domestic and recreational rather than the academic or professional, it is emotional, and it has a quality of ethical seriousness. These features can combine to make a book vibrantly social, a catalyst for passionate conversations between readers. (Driscoll 2015)

Glenice Whitting’s Something Missing seems to fall into the category of middlebrow writing, though this may be a label she too will reject. While I take issue with Driscoll’s focus on exclusively female writers in her SRB review (in her book-length work The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century [2014] she does investigate male writers) the presentation of Whitting’s book and the style of its writing align closely with many of the traits listed above, particularly in its focus on the domestic and the emotional.

In the 1970s two women meet, by chance, in the Australian outback during a holiday. Diane is a young mother, a hairdresser by trade, whose encounter with the older, American Maggie, an assistant to her academic husband, Hank, begins a friendship firstly explored through letters and, as the years pass, through Diane’s visits to Maggie. Whilst the writer, wisely, avoids the full epistolary style – using the beginning of letters then veering off into scenes from each of the women’s life – it is primarily through missive writing that they present themselves to one another.

From the start Maggie is the ‘older and wiser’ of the two; she encourages Diane to buy a dictionary and work hard at her grammar and spelling and she is the one who recommends books for Diane to read. We are aware Maggie is not being truthful about the state of her marriage, nor her relationship with one of her daughters, although the true extent of her deception is not revealed until much later in the novel. The friendship appears to have a greater impact on Diane. It is she who begins to enter another type of world: returning to study and falling in love with literature, making a move away from the working arena of hairdressing and stepping, eventually, towards authorship. Maggie, on the other hand, has no such real change to record.

This imbalance of character journey makes for an unsatisfying first third of the work and the absence of chapter breaks give little indication of where the piece is headed. There is a strong sense here of disguised autobiography which, in itself, is not problematic but seems to have limited the shaping of the writing. It does not build towards a climax, instead meandering through the women’s lives in a primarily, linear way. At one point, Diane begins to write the novel we are reading and Maggie tries to insist she not leave anyone out, a tenet Diane is reluctant to follow because she knows this to be impossible. In some respects, the author could have taken the same stance and weeded out scenes without strong purpose.

Whitting’s writing shows signs of needing more thorough editing. Frequently, particularly in the early stages of the novel, the time shifts are overly quick and the introduction of characters feels rushed, creating confusion. There are also inaccuracies and typographical errors (for instance, the ‘recently elected Whitlam Labour [sic] government’ is incorrectly referenced in the 1990s, instead of in 1973 when they were, in fact, elected, and ‘Labour’ is a misspelling of ‘Labor’).

Yet, despite these reservations, there is something to be valued in this story of ‘two women, two countries’. Here, I believe Driscoll’s terminology provides a lens through which to read Something Missing: its focus on the domestic and its concern with emotions sets it apart from plot-driven work and the prosaic realism lends an authenticity to the writing which – if you are prepared to put aside longings for drama or fully realised conflict – can touch the reader.

Perhaps the most poignant moment comes when Maggie lets go of the need to have a ‘truthful’ account of her life retold and concedes to Diane: ‘Do what you like. Maybe add some fiction. I’m not an interesting person’ (190). A moment later she hides the reality of her life from Diane: ‘Maggie rubs the palm of her hand with her thumb. He abused me you know. Abused me in the bedroom’ (191). The reader is given an insight into Maggie’s past which Diane is not given access to, even as we have just been made aware that this telling is Diane’s / the author’s, so we know it to be all fiction of some kind, a neat double-take.

The issue of growing old and the decision to die with dignity is the most successful idea of the work where strong portraits of Hank and Maggie’s struggles with the limitations of age contrast with Diane’s new incarnation as a writer. The different trajectories of the characters in the latter half of the book serve to evoke sympathy for Maggie, as we come to know her struggles intimately and feel the sadness of her decline.

Whitting has set out to show, in Diane’s words, ‘two women coping the best way they knew how’ with the ups and downs of life. There will be many who believe this is enough to hang an entire novel on and others who need a greater sense of artistry and thematic rendering to feel fully satisfied.


Works cited



Dr Rachel Hennessy’s second novel The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press 2013) was written as part of her PhD at the University of Adelaide. It was longlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award for an established female writer. She tutors creative writing at the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste