“This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.”
In Amy Witting’s gently witty novel, A Change in the Lighting, Ella Ferguson, mother of three adult children, is stunned when her husband of over thirty years casually and calmly announces he wants a divorce. Ella, a wonderful wife and mother, who has ensured that her husband “never waited for a meal nor wanted for a clean shirt,” is suddenly cast adrift. Not only must she come to terms with her new solo life, but she also, through her relationships with her children, discovers just how shielded her ‘old’ life was.
Professor Bernard Ferguson is (appropriately) standing in front of a mirror when he announces that he wants a divorce. Of course, there’s another woman, in this case it’s the much younger researcher, Louise. After being thrown out by Ella, Bernard stops to ask for clean socks “in a neutral tone, as if he were off to a weekend conference after a small domestic disagreement,” He’s lucky there wasn’t any violence, but then Ella hasn’t yet absorbed the totality of the situation.
Ella breaks the news to her three children: Married teacher, David, difficult, beautiful Caroline who is married to a much older man who works at the same university as Bernard, and Ella’s youngest Sophie, the only one still at home, who’s working as an assistant to a filmmaker.
While Sophie sides completely with Ella, David oversees his mother’s financial interests in the divorce with the idea that he can be some sort of emotionally reasonable conduit. Caroline, however, who’s always been at odds with her mother, strikes out to gain her father’s favour, and as a consequence, Ella’s relationship with her only grandchild becomes a casualty of the fallout.
A Change in the Lighting could have been written with a dire, desperate undercurrent. Certainly Ella finds herself in a difficult position with no job, no money of her own, and a large, mostly empty house to maintain. In Ella, Amy Witting creates with nimble, gentle humour, a marvellous, and yet perfectly ordinary protagonist, a middle-aged woman who discovers that her sheltered life ends with the departure of her roving husband. While at first, Ella’s life seems to shrivel when her husband leaves, it also begins to expand in new unexpected ways. Sophie brings home her boss, a lesbian filmmaker, and soon there’s a reclusive writer living in the house. While all these changes take place, Bernard, with the predatory Louise lurking in the background, rants about the electric bill, and it soon becomes clear that Ella must make a decision about her home.
Amy Witting, and this is the third novel I read from this author, has a wonderful approach to female madness. I is for Isobel introduced the main character we follow into Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Isobel, in isolation and damaged from a neurotic mother, must learn to accept acts of kindness. In A Change in the Lighting, Ella must accept change, but when her marriage is torn apart, she initially goes through various despondent emotional stages, acknowledging “no wonder that deserted wives turned alcoholic.” Ella’s life as she knew it begins to disappear and, at times, feeling disoriented she realizes that it would be easy to go mad–that madness is a monster who’s moved in, waiting for her collapse:
When she had got into bed, she considered her day with the monster. Had she made any progress? There were three stages: short spells of quiescence, even moments of peace in which it disappeared altogether, long spells where they co-existed reasonably well, and moments of crisis, when somebody mentioned obsession or some other cause of pain–nothing so bad again as that moment when the thing seemed to be mocking her. It had been coincidence, a trick of the light.
In hindsight, Ella realizes that there were clues about Bernard’s affair, and as she explains to her best friend, Pam:
“You know, when there’s a noise breaking into your sleep and you don’t want to wake up, you can dream a long, complicated dream that explains the noise away.”
In the fallout of the divorce, Ella discovers a surprising ally in her daughter-in-law Martha, and how true it is that those who marry into a family are often more competent when it comes to deciphering family dynamics. While dramas in her children’s lives spiral around her, and Ella is propelled towards making decisions about her future, she sinks into avoidance by making a complicated rug for her beloved granddaughter. It’s a gift of love and also a marvellous way to ignore her crumbling world:
“So we’re all on the move,” said Martha. “We’ll be moving, too, joining the mortgage belt now that we’ve paid off the unit. Do you have any idea where you’re going to settle? It would be nice to be close to you.”
Ella had no idea on this subject at all. As furniture for the future, she had a remnant of pale green lamé which was to form a stylised arc of sea, the base of a foam of cobweb Shetland wool knitted rather loosely in the traditional Old Shale pattern
Bernard’s desertion of Ella is cold, shift and brutal, and yet of course he gets his comeuppance. The gentle humour reminds of Barbara Pym–although Pym’s novels are, of course, set in the world of lonely academics, clergymen and spinsters. But I would say if you like Pym, you’ll like Witting and vice versa.
How easy it all was, to get drunk, to go mad, to vandalise, to commit fraud. Perhaps she had always had criminal tendencie; they hadn’t surfaced before because they weren’t relevant, didn’t suit her lifestyle.
Absolutely on my best-of-year-list
(Forgot to add this is one of the books read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge)