I had always dreamed of being in a book club. I envisaged a small, articulate band of women meeting regularly in each other’s lounge rooms for impassioned discussions about the latest Booker Prize winner or literary wűnderkind, fuelled by copious bottles of red wine and homemade chocolate brownies. As the evening progressed, incisive literary criticism would give way to diatribes about unfaithful spouses, drunken readings of the novels we were all secretly working on and general female bonding. It would all be wonderfully sophisticated and stimulating.
In my mid-twenties, I decided it was time to make my book club dreams a reality. I was living in Revesby at the time. Revesby had a lot going for it: it had a supermarket, for instance, should you wish to purchase groceries. It had an RSL club which regularly attracted luminaries such as the U2 cover band and the Metallica tribute show. It had a Chinese restaurant and BBQ chicken shop. It also had a train station, should you want to leave. Revesby wasn’t really a book club type of place, but I decided to start one there anyway.
The founding members of the club were myself and a good friend, Angela*, who also lived in Revesby. We came up with a catchy name for the club; ‘Choco-lit’ (inspired!), then put an ad in the local paper. To my surprise, we quickly accrued a respectable number of members from the local area, primarily young mothers and bored house-wives.
Our meetings gradually developed a pattern where we would take it in turns to choose the book, and whoever chose that month’s book, would host the meeting and provide the chocolate. In the first year we read some wonderful books: Bo Caldwell’s Distant Land of My Father, Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, and Joseph O’Neill’s Star of the Sea. There were some less successful choices, too, of course: no-one had much to say about A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and we were all disappointed by Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. But in general, things were going well: the books we read were varied and engaging, the conversation was invigorating, and while we were not quite at the drunken-confessional stage of group cohesion, we were all getting on well.
And then came Edna. Edna was a retired woman in her seventies with an uncanny ability to track down a Readers Digest condensed version of any book that had ever been written. Most of us thought this wasn’t really in the spirit of a book club – particularly when applied even to short story collections and Ladybird early readers – but we kept our reservations to ourselves. Edna was accompanied by her slightly younger friend/chauffeur, Avril, who was loyal, quiescent, and always vigorously affirmed everything Edna said and did.
I knew from the start that Edna was going to be trouble. It wasn’t just the condensed books issue: she was grating and overbearing in personality, certainly not your sweet, pastel-cardigan-wearing, lavender-sachet-carrying type of old lady. She had very decided – and restrictive – views on what constituted an appropriate book club book: namely, no ambiguity, no tampering with chronology, nothing too ‘airy-fairy or intellectual’ and absolutely no homosexuality – or as she descriptively termed it, ‘men gaying around.’ She favoured large print mystery novels of the type commonly found on library discard tables. She tended to fixate on inconsequential details in books: the name of the grocery store the protagonist shopped at, whether they were 6’2 or 6’3, whether some entirely trivial event had taken place on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. She also had the remarkable ability to bring any discussion around to three recurring themes: feminism’s debt to her, her hysterectomy and death, torture, mutilation and the grotesque. She was forever launching into gruesome descriptions of ancient Egyptian embalming rituals or exactly how a particular serial killer had tortured each of his victims to death – never mind what the conversation was actually about. One minute you’d be talking about the ball at Netherfield or Mrs Dalloway’s party, the next she’d be giving you a lurid account of how the Sioux Indians would slit open the stomachs of the Jesuit missionaries, tie their intestines to a stake in the earth then fasten them to their horse before making it bolt. It used to put us off our chocolate.
I think it was the meeting at Edna’s house which signalled the beginning of the end. Usually I could keep her in check – it was my book club and I wasn’t going to let some morbid old lady wreck it, dammit! – but I was distracted on this particular night. I had just got my licence and being a particularly nervous driver, spent most of the meeting recovering from the stress of driving there and preparing for the stress of driving home. I was also thrown by the fact that Edna’s house turned out to be located behind some type of meat packing yard – something she had not thought to mention when giving us the address. The path was open for Edna…
The last fateful meeting of ‘Choco-Lit’
‘So what did everyone think of the book?’ Edna asked, now that she had finished showing off her moccasins made of human skin. The book under discussion was a singularly-forgettable D-grade detective novel set on a farm – so forgettable in fact, I honestly can’t remember what it was called. A Cowbell for the Coroner, A Rifle in a Haystack – something of that calibre (ha!)
‘I thought it was the best book we’ve read yet’, Avril announced firmly. ‘A wonderful choice Edna – much better than that boring Mrs Dallowade – where was the action? I thought someone said there were wolves in it? Or that Booker Prize winning one with all the gay men gaying around. A real page-turner.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Edna said dismissively, putting a tray of wheat digestive biscuits on the table. She had decided to forego the usual chocolate-based snacks as, since her hysterectomy, anything with dairy ‘played havoc with her innards.’ We all eyed them unenthusiastically.
She rifled through her knitting bag for her Readers Digest condensed edition, then once it was firmly grasped in her withered claw, turned abruptly to Angela . ‘What did you think of the book?’ she demanded.
Angela was caught off guard. ‘Oh, I’m not really sure…’ she began lamely.
She was saved by the sound of someone calling out over the back fence – Tracy, arriving late. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Tracy apologized breathlessly. ‘I’ve been walking around for ages. I wasn’t sure this was the right place. And then I just thought I’d try round the back…’
‘You should have knocked at the front door,’ Edna squawked in annoyance, lumbering out to unlatch the back gate.
‘Yes, I would have’, Tracy explained, ‘but I was thrown by all the carcasses and the notice about meat packers only’.
‘Yes, I don’t think you actually mentioned you lived behind an abattoir’, Angela added in support.
‘Of course I did!’ Edna bellowed indignantly. She fixed her gimlet eye on Angela once again. ‘You haven’t told us what you thought of the book yet,’ she said in a vaguely menacing tone, fingering her moccasins.
‘I thought there were some quite interesting ideas in it,’ said Angela, flustered. ‘But did anyone else find it was quite difficult to keep track of the characters? I mean, seven detectives did seem rather excessive…’ She looked desperately to me for support, but I was too strung out from the drive across to notice, having had to change lane twice and go around two separate roundabouts. Also, the road had been slightly narrow in parts.
Tracy, always one for a good debate, came to her aid. ‘Yes, it was a bit much, wasn’t it? Just another example of the patriarchal excesses underpinning the text. ‘ Edna gave her a frosty gaze, interpreting ‘patriarchal excesses’ as a criticism of her choice of book. Tracy ploughed on valiantly, however. ‘ I thought it was interesting the way the author problematised sexual power. When the husband cuts out the maid’s tongue and imprisons her in the henhouse, he’s effectively denying her a voice and relegating her -’
Edna cut her off: ‘That’s just how men were back then.’
‘Cutting out women’s tongues?’ Tracy interjected incredulously.
Edna ignored her. ‘Back in my day, women didn’t have the choices you girls have today. You could be either a secretary or a typist – and you had to look after the house and raise the children too. I was a trailblazer, one of the first women to ever set foot outside of the front door…’
She spoke for several more hours. All of the other members nodded politely, seemingly in gratitude for the many life opportunities Edna had afforded them. No doubt, she imagined each of them was privately considering nominating her for the Order of Australia.
‘Now, I believe we were talking about the book. I think we need to discuss the part where they went to the grocery store to pick up some milk… How was it they got there again? A Four-wheel drive? Or a limousine? No, that wasn’t it – something beginning with an ‘m’. A bicycle maybe? No, that doesn’t begin with an ‘m’. Oh, what do they call those things?’
‘Oh yes, that bit with the grocery store!’ Avril piped up. ‘I remember that. Was it a tractor perhaps?’
‘No, no, not a tractor!’ Edna said repressively. ‘I told you, it began with an ‘m’’.
‘It was a taxi,’ said Tracy quietly.
‘Oh, what do they call those things!’ Avril cried out theatrically, smacking her forehead with her palm. ‘Some sort of sleigh I think’.
‘Yes, that was an interesting bit,’ Angela said, tactfully attempting to steer the conversation towards a more meaningful topic, ‘though I thought the bit where the husband visits the prostitute was perhaps more significant overall. Did anyone else think that he -’
‘I’ve got it, it was a kayak!’ Edna interrupted. ‘Wait, no, that wasn’t it.’
They discussed the question strenuously for several more minutes. Everyone else looked on politely as Avril continued to shout out different forms of transport and Edna tried to locate the section in the book.
At last she found it. ‘It was a taxi!’ she announced triumphantly. We all tried to look as if this fact had some relevance to the book as a whole. ‘Right, I think that’s about it then.’ Apparently the book has been adequately deconstructed. ‘What are we going to read next month? A member of my group recommended In the Cut.’ (Both Edna and Avril attended a group where women over sixty wrote poems about the various surgical procedures they’ve endured.) ‘Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it as I’m having my left lung removed.’
Tracy couldn’t make it either (the unofficial reason was that her six year old daughter needed therapy after overhearing Edna’s detailed account of ancient Mesopotamian circumcision practices at the last meeting.) Angela suggested Charlotte Gray, though you could tell her heart wasn’t really in it. I was too distracted to make a proposal: I was trying to remember if the park brake still worked when the keys weren’t in the ignition. And things petered out a bit after that…
It’s been nearly a decade since I moved out of Revesby. I’ve lost contact with most of the old members, but the last I heard, a few of them still met up occasionally, though it has become more of a mother’s group. No-one has heard from Edna, though I doubt anyone has enquired too closely.
I have a new book club now: just in its early stages, but I have high hopes of it. We meet at a wine bar, close enough to my house for me to walk or to get a taxi home, if it’s been a particularly impassioned, wine-fuelled night. We’re only small, yet hope to gradually get more members. If you’re interested, send me a message – but strictly under seventies only.
*A fictive name, as are all of the others in this piece – appropriate, given the subject matter.