lip lit: after she left
After She Left follows three generations of women across a span of five decades, utilising the characters and time periods within the novel to explore different facets of feminism.
The story begins by introducing one of the three main characters, Deirdre, a free-spirited artist who emigrates from Ireland to Sydney in the 1930s after falling pregnant to a married man. In all honesty, this part of the story seems rushed and unnecessary. While it’s fascinating to explore the 1930s art scene in Sydney through Deirdre’s eyes (and Penelope Hanley really is a talented writer, so the descriptions of the location and characters are mesmerising), its only purpose is to serve as background to main plot of the novel and could just as easily have been summed up in a paragraph or two. Particularly as, once the novel takes off, the reader is left wanting longer and more in-depth scenes depicting some of the emotionally gripping aspects of the novel that really bring it into its own.
Hanley’s writing is both strong and elegant, making the transitions between time periods seamless. This is no small feat. Not only are there many jumps in time (and I mean many, given that there are fifty chapters in the novel and almost every one covers a different period of time), but the story also alternates between the perspective of the three main characters, each of whom has a very distinctive voice: Deirdre, the bohemian artist who eventually runs off to Europe to be with her lover; her daughter, Maureen, a conservative woman who devoted her life to her children and disagrees with Deirdre’s free-spirited ways; and Keira, Maureen’s daughter, a liberal-minded photographer who is an interesting mix between the two. However, while there are many chapters written from the perspective of Deirdre and Maureen, it is Keira who really ties the story together.
Without giving too much away, the main plot of the novel is that Keira, against her mother’s wishes, decides to pursue an honours thesis about her grandmother’s surrealist art. Along the way, she learns a lot not only about Deirdre, but also uncovers the family secret that drove a rift between Deirdre and Maureen. Though much of the story revolves around Keira, it has to be said that it is Maureen’s evolution that really draws the reader in and captures the political and social liberation of women in the 1970s.
However, all three women have strong story arcs and are faced with different, yet equally interesting, battles. While some of these battles stem directly from each other and the choices they have made, most are tied to the cultural and social settings they grew up in. These are explored by Hanley in a way that demonstrates the extent to which we are shaped by the world around us, no matter how much we may believe we are in control of our lives.
Despite the multiple time periods, the crux of the novel is set in the months before and after the Whitlam government came to power. Ideas around feminism, responsibility, relationships and politics are explored in-depth, sometimes well and sometimes not, which brings me to my only real criticism of the novel: it is at times didactic. Characters tend to explain rather than demonstrate their beliefs, particularly when it comes to politics and women’s rights. While I agree with the ideas expressed within the novel, I can see this alienating readers with different beliefs who, rather than getting them to reassess or explore these ideas from other points of view, will double-down on their own.
However, this did not limit my enjoyment of the story, and for the most part I was engaged in the plot and invested in the characters – particularly Maureen, who was well-written, interesting and relatable.
I applaud Penelope for tackling heavy subject matter* in such an empathetic and engaging way, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else this talented Canberra author has to offer.
*Trigger warning: there is a rape scene near the start of the novel.