“[Teaching] that might have been the best thing in her life. And reading. Escaping from self.”
Amy Witting’s novel, Maria’s War, a story of displacement, acceptance and secrets is set in Leicester Gardens, a Sydney “retirement village,” which is part of a larger complex. There are villas for the better-off and more independent seniors; there’s also a nursing home for the ill, and a hospital block. Retired teacher, Erica Bromley moves into Leicester Gardens after the death of her only friend. Erica, or Brom, as she is known to her former students, does not find the transition to life in Leicester Gardens easy. Erica selected Leicester Gardens mostly due to the “advertised attraction” of bush walks. But she is told by the manager that she cannot walk alone and must be accompanied by another resident. Meals are communal, unless requested otherwise, and the residents have firmly developed relationships, cliques and rules of engagement. Maria, a long term-resident, seems to be Erica’s most promising companion, yet Erica is all too aware that she must not favour Maria’s company too much or she risks the hostility of some of the other, already prickly, residents.
The book is called Maria’s War, and the book opens with Maria being interviewed by Neil, a young man hired by Maria’s family to write her history. Neil has a romantic interest in Maria’s granddaughter, which is not reciprocated, and when Neil works that out, he finds himself becoming impatient with Maria’s story.
So what is Maria’s story? During WWII, Maria, a Lithuanian catholic, was separated from her husband. He was press-ganged into the Wehrmacht while she, displaced with her baby daughter, survived the war after many hardships. Maria recounts some of her history to Neil, and keeps other parts of it secret. Neil senses that he is receiving the expurgated version, and can tell when Maria hits a memory she can’t or won’t discuss. Many of Maria’s actions and decisions were made under harsh circumstance, and now, in the telling, her hardships seem shadowed by the moral implications she must live with. From a distance one can never fully recreate the atmosphere, the pressures, the tensions and the fears that led to one decision over another.
It seems like memory is a live thing, unpredictable. I had not really expected that.
For this reader, the novel excelled at the petty jabs of residents towards each other for perceived grievances or rule-jumpers. If one resident receives a letter or postcard, the others expect news of the outside world to be shared. Communal life in the dining room is banal and predictable. Conversations must be on certain topics and not run off the rails, and Erica finds that she must conform, yet with Maria, she is more her true self. Unfortunately most of the residents remain 2 dimensional shady forms like pieces on a chess board.
It’s as if there are two novels here: Maria’s War and Erica’s life and integration in the retirement village. A BIG coincidence brings these 2 stories together but it is a clumsy device. Maria’s War is not up to the standards of I is for Isobel, Isobel on the way to the Corner Shop, or A Change in the Lighting. The latter is my favourite.
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