Guest review: Imogen Baratta on Blue Skies by Helen Hodgman

Text Publishing
9781921758133, March 2011 (Aus)
(also UK)

Reviewed by Imogen Baratta

Helen Hodgman’s Blue Skies tells the story of an unnamed young wife and mother living in the ‘heart shaped island’ of Tasmania. The agonising banality of her day-to-day life plays out within the confines of stark, suffocating suburbia, amid the manicured lawns and expensive white goods. But our protagonist is adrift; trapped in an unhappy marriage, her days punctuated by empty affairs, the tick of the clock and her controlling mother-in-law.

She moves through the book in a dream-like, anti-depressant haze: her reactions are slow and her hearing poor, she is plagued by nightmares; her emotions are deadened by boredom, ‘her nature beaten-back’ by depression.

Blue Skies is a psychological study of a young woman on the brink of a breakdown; like an elastic band that’s stretched too tight and about to snap. She spends much of her time sleeping, or waking from sleep, her disorientation disrupted by the rumble of domestic machinery: lawn mowers, washing machines and fridges. Despite the heat of the summer, darkness, shadows and ghosts lurk all around her, even in the salty, sweaty coastal town where she lives.

Despite her emotional distance, our protagonist is raw and vulnerable: ‘too soft’, ‘fleshy’; ‘a shell-less crab’. The other characters in the novel are purposefully two-dimensional: the nosy neighbour, sleazy bus driver, her philandering husband and meddling mother in law. Even her daughter Angelica, or as she refers to her, ‘James’ daughter and the baby’ coos and gurgles occasionally, as if reminding her mother of her presence.

Blue Skies evokes a sense of foreboding that’s palpable: the ticking clock counts down the hours, hinting that the scorching horror of suburban Hobart could erupt at any minute.

Hodgman’s style is reminiscent of another Australian author, Madeleine St John, with its sharp observations and savvy dissection of relationships. Both writers have had their novels re-released in the noughties, I suspect to capitalise on the fashionable ‘chick-lit’ movement. (Apparently female authors who write about female characters are classified as ‘chick-lit’. Just so you know).

When Blue Skies was first published in 1976, the novel was critically acclaimed. More recently, author Nicholas Shakespeare called it ‘A memorable novella – sensuous, strange, prickly as a sea-urchin.’

What is remarkable about Blue Skies is its relevance today: Hodgman’s prose, themes and imagery are as snappy now as they were 35 years ago. Her other novels include; Jack and Jill (1978; winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Broken Words (1988; winner of the Christina Stead Prize), Passing Remarks (1996), Waiting for Matindi (1998) and The Bad Policeman (2001).

Blue Skies is an unashamedly feminist novel. Our protagonist is an anti-hero – anything but maternal, sexually adventurous, emotionally inept, and a prisoner of her own self-absorption.  She’s not a likeable character, but she’s definitely a familiar one.

Blue Skies revels in the mundanity of Australia’s suburban landscapes, much like other cultural exports Howard Arkley and Dame Edna Everage. The novel crackles along, brimming with dry, sardonic humour and the Australian inclination to understatement.

Blue Skies is cheeky, wonky and just a little bit sleazy. Two thumbs up.

Imogen Baratta is a media officer by day and writer by night. She has written for yen, mX, My Career, Crikey and Pearson among others and has started a Twitter account for the sole purpose of posting pithy tweets on Q and A. On Twitter she is @ImogenBaratta.

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