The Steele Diaries – Wendy James

Vintage, 2008, 9781740513845

Ruth comes from a line of artists, but preferred to study medicine and become a doctor like her father. When her father passes away, she is forced to leave the city and head home to arrange everything. A man called Douglas Grant calls, who had written a biography of her grandmother – bohemian artist Annie Swift. He is after the diaries of Ruth’s mother, who was also an artist – of woodcuts, illustrations and picture books – Zelda Steele. Ruth says she knows nothing about the diaries, and at that stage she doesn’t. But she will.

The reader is treated to Ruth’s present, alongside Zelda’s childhood, adolescence, and first years of motherhood. The novel also glimpses the worlds of Annie Swift and Ed Steele, young artists on the cusp of success in Australia’s war years. The first chapters of Zelda’s diary entires are slightly annoying, as they are from a girlhood point of view, with far too many (intentional) caps and exclamation marks. They nonetheless give you a genuine feel for the character.

This novel is very rich in scope, era, place, and character development. It is stylistically jumpy, going from straight fiction, to the lyrical toward the end. I enjoyed the latter lyrical chapters, where Zelda’s mental state is unbalanced and her emoting becomes creative. It’s quite moving to follow a character through their childhood, first kiss, awkward moments, devastating first love, and into motherhood.

Ruth’s story in the present is hearty as well. She has left a partner back in Sydney but deals with burgeoning feelings for someone else – a man called ‘Salty’, who has had a rough life but is endearing, strong, and positive. Her story holds a lot of interest as she slowly learns about her mother, her real background, and decides what to do from hereon.

The character of Zelda grated at times, for a probably purely subjective reason, in that I’m often drawn to characters who strike out against the norm (such as Ed and Annie) wheras Zelda for much of the time argues for the fact of becoming more ordinary, more conservative even. But it is also quite a refreshing point of view, and she grew on me (but only when things got a little darker for her down the track). The character portrait is not overly consistent, but I do think this is a deliberate action by the author as people do change through the course of a life, and the events that would change a person are rendered throughout.

An enjoyable aspect of the novel, too, is the art scene in Sydney and surrounds through the eras, as has obviously been heavily researched by James. The fashions, fabrics, hairstyles, moods, art movements, foods, and social situations of Australian art world from the 30s, through to the 70s, are vivid and absorbing. As are descriptions of city versus country, and Zelda’s boarding school, among others.

I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys getting to know their characters intimately, who wonders about how someone’s background and upbringing has influenced them, who enjoys considering nature versus nurture, and engaging in thoughts of motherhood versus the creative self. If you’re also into art you would enjoy the references, and if you know your Australian art history you would probably pick up the parallels with similar real-life figures from the eras written about.

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