“You can get to be like those prisoners who don’t want to leave gaol.”
Earlier this year, I read and loved Amy Witting’s novel I for Isobel, a novel with a oddly-childlike title that did this clever, subtle book no favours. The novel begins with Isobel in miserable childhood, follows her through early years into troubled adulthood and ended somewhat optimistically with the idea that perhaps Isobel would heal and overcome her emotional problems. This brings me to Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, the second Isobel novel–another book with a curiously childlike title which in no way mirrors the book’s subtle emotional exploration of the main character’s inner life.
Isobel on the Way to the Comer Shop, finds Isobel in terrible straits. She’s unemployed (for that story, read I for Isobel,) working temp jobs for a pittance, and living in a squalid boarding house. But it’s not all bad news. She’s managed to have a story published so those literary ambitions are beginning to pay off. But when you’re living on the edge of poverty, cold, depressed and ill, those conditions aren’t conducive to the creative spirit. The book opens with Isobel in her attic room facing a typewriter, living off baked bean sandwiches, and asking herself how she can write about love when “her own researches into the matter had been disastrous.” Unable to solve or understand the complications of love and sex and just how the two are connected, Isobel takes off for a ‘literary evening’ where she’s clearly unwelcome, and with growing paranoia that may be a descent into madness, she cruelly rejects the kindness of a young male friend. A few days later, close to starvation she decides to make a trip to the corner shop but never arrives….
Isobel is diagnosed with TB and ends up in at Mornington Sanatorium where she, and scores of other patients, undergo months of treatment. Chronic illness peels back the patina of the social self, and leaves, exposed, our true natures, so there are compliant patients, willful patients, and difficult patients all tossed together with the same diagnosis, in the same institution. Some patients wallow in self pity and peevishness while others, and Isobel is one of these, emerge from the crucible of illness, much better human beings for the experience.
At first, probed and examined, an unwanted, contagious patient in a general hospital, Isobel feels like a “parcel. Parcels can be opened and inspected,” but eventually, for the first time in her life, she learns to accept acts of kindness. This begins with the kindness of a volunteer worker, continues with various staff members from the sanatorium and a visit from someone from her past hammers home the lesson that she does matter to people.
She had taken for granted always that when she closed a door behind her, she disappeared entirely from the minds of those behind it. That this was not so was disconcerting: it created a responsibility she did not wish to bear.
There’s a poignancy lingering in Isobel’s story–here’s a young woman who’s never felt that she mattered to anyone, with no loving relationships in her life, she feels valueless, and what irony that it takes a diagnosis of TB in order for Isobel to finally accept that people care about her. Stuck in forced confinement in a hospital bed, she can no longer retreat into her shabby attic, and she’s forced to observe and confront relationships she has with various patients and staff members.
While Isobel is at the sanatorium to cure her body of TB, her confinement and its “enforced intimacy,” effectively brings an emotional cure, and this is partly due to sharing a room with Val, a peevish unpleasant woman, who, in spite of her glaring character deficiencies, receives constant visits from her long-suffering husband, Geoff and daughter, Pauline. Val is oblivious to her own behaviour, but nonetheless makes a canny observation regarding a nurse and her relationship with a patient’s husband. Isobel finds it curious that “Val, who could hunt down unhappy lovers with whom she had no connection, did not seem to notice the” feelings of others. Isobel’s relationship with Val, whose random peevish cruelty, is a faint echo of the behaviour of Isobel’s mother becomes both the bane of her existence and a hurdle for emotional healing. Val’s inchoate frustration with Isobel begins when Isobel starts a knitting project to help pass the time during enforced bed rest. Val takes umbrage at Isobel’s choice of wool, and frustrated and miserable beyond all reason, she won’t let the subject rest:
Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself.
Isobel accepts that she’s an emotional ‘illiterate,’ but to do something about that means taking risks “stepp[ing] out in space,” and not clinging to the safe and familiar. The Sanatorium becomes a refuge for many patients who’ve chosen to remain there and work, and as Isobel becomes more comfortable at the sanatorium and forms relationships with a host of highly memorable characters, she has a difficult choice to make…
In the book’s introduction, Maria Takolander writes that for Witting the “Isobel novels were autobiographical, that it was the ‘terrible truth of fiction’ which helped her ‘to conquer the truth of that situation.’ “ So it should come as no surprise to learn that Witting (Joan Austral Fraser) suffered from TB at one point in her life and drew from these experiences when writing this book. If you are at all interested reading Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop which is going to make my best-of-year list, you read I for Isobel first. Sadly, there’s a third Isobel novel that Witting did not finish before her death.
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