You are currently viewing Unbecoming by Joanne Fedler, an unflinching look at midlife

Unbecoming by Joanne Fedler, an unflinching look at midlife

I was engrossed. Any mother of teenage children, any mother on the verge of facing the empty nest, will relate to Jo’s sentiments.

Unbecoming is prefaced with the author’s warning: “You’re about to enter perilous terrain. Relax, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Fedler includes a quote by Mário de Andrade, which goes: “We have two lives and the second begins when you realise you only have one.”

This is, in essence, the theme and focus of this unflinching look at what some call midlife, and the challenges faced by women as their relationships, as well as their children, mature, and as they approach the next phase – a stage often characterised by existential examination of friendship, family, the empty nest, middle age, menopause and what it means generally to become an “older” woman.

We outgrow the grief for the childhood we longed for that would have enabled us to grow into a different kind of adult, with fewer or alternative hang-ups.

The story begins as Jo, a writer of novels, takes three months off from her marriage, from her devoted husband, Frank, and from her daughter Jamie and son Aaron. She takes the opportunity to reflect on how “shredded and shriveled from decision fatigue” she has become, taxed as she has been as wife and mother. Can she recover and find deeper meaning in what she sometimes regards as her “blunder” through her 52 years of running a home, working, mothering? Officially off the grid, she retreats 1 000 kilometres from her city home to house-sit in the Queensland hinterland of Australia, and here coincidentally runs into Fiona, an old friend from “the early mummy days”. Fiona, a breast cancer survivor in remission, then leads Jo into the wild, in both senses of the word. Fiona invites Jo on a hike into the wilderness, into a rain forest, the destination a cove where a collection of friends will perform a sacred Hindu ritual, a yatra, in celebration of Fiona’s birthday, her first after the death of her husband.

The women, Fiona’s “soul sisters”, walk in ritual silence, the group finally coming to rest on the deserted beach for the night, and so the conversations begin. As they sit around the campfire, they disclose ever more intimate details about their lives. Cate is debilitated by a motor neuron disease. Kiri, a Maori nurse, reveals her struggles as a lesbian, including issues of family abhorrence. Yasmin, known for her beautiful food – “a calming soup, a soft dessert, a kind bread” – has a daughter who suffers from anorexia. Liz, straight-talking, career-minded, unflappably calm, is coming to terms with the news that her son has been seriously injured in an accident.

Over the next few hundred pages of Unbecoming, the women do indeed traverse the wild country of midlife: of ageing, of illness, of desire, of possibilities for that “second life”. As they talk, deeper connections are formed among them through ever more heart-wrenching revelations. Their conversations reveal their anxieties, fears and regrets – about themselves, about their children – their shared words reveal, in the circle of friendship, closely held secrets, and, in doing so, create connection.

When Emilie, a lost German hiker, just 21, stumbles on their campsite, this adds an intriguing dynamic. Not only is Emilie a symbol of the future, but she becomes a foil for the women as familiarity grows over the evening and night, and the women, becoming closer to one another, more trusting, talk of and bear witness to each other’s travails, moving towards exposing the core of who they each are.

I was engrossed. Any mother of teenage children, any mother on the verge of facing the empty nest, will relate to Jo’s sentiments about Jamie and Aaron, “who have left emotionally but still occupy space in the bathroom, use up the laundry cycles, chew through the WiFi and empty the fridge at odd hours”. Fedler uses gentle humour to examine not only parenting but, as mentioned, menopause, cancer, death and more. The book deals with it all head-on, the fictionalised conversations making it easy to digest, easy to enjoy the irreverence as well as easy to take heart and courage from the wisdom of her cast of friends. As they look up at the night sky and take their place as insignificant “tiny fretting flecks of DNA”, as Liz puts it, but also understand their very real, often nurturing presence in the world, they are revealed in all their humanity.

Jo, in particular – the narrator, as we come to know her best – is kind, wise and truthful, her thoughtful insight worthy of being quoted:

We outgrow the grief for the childhood we longed for that would have enabled us to grow into a different kind of adult, with fewer or alternative hang-ups. We arrange the furniture of our emotional life in the feng shui of our heart space – we see how we cleverly made exits and escape hatches in tricky places, how we crowded hollow tracts with comforts to mask the vacancies. We determine what is ours and what isn’t.

As a South African reader, I found Jo’s ambiguity toward emigration fascinating. In a poignant memory, Jo describes her family celebrating their newly gained Australian citizenship, embracing a new culture, but feeling, still, “not entirely Australian”. The text, peppered with references to South Africa, brings to the fore how difficult it was and is for Jo to make a life elsewhere. At times, I felt the novel perhaps bordered on autobiography, as Fedler herself emigrated from South Africa to Australia and is mother of two teenage children. However, drawing on real life for inspiration ensures an authenticity which one cannot question. “Where do I belong now?” Jo asks. “After emigrating for the sake of the kids when they were little, is it time to return to the land of ubuntu, to spend the last years of my parents’ life with them? Do I belong with Frank? Do I belong alone?”

Chapter headings, such as “Once a food witch”, “Activated pussies” and “The point of children”, provide clues as to the issues focused on in each conversation. The chapters are strengthened with Jo’s own memories and reflection on her life. We root for her recovery, if one can call it that: her recovery of energy with which to face life on her return to Frank. As she reaches this “midlife station”, she thinks back particularly on her family life, but also poignantly about a best friend with whom she has lost contact, and another killed in a motorbike accident. She mourns the losses, but embraces her new-found friends on this hike, so mystically marked by ritual.

To go back to the beginning of the story: when Frank leaves Jo at the airport, his goodbye words to her are: “See you on the other side.” By the end of the novel, Jo does indeed come through to find herself “on the other side” – of her questioning, her frustration, her uncertainty attached to “what next”. She reflects on all that is good in her marriage, with Frank and with Jamie and Aaron, coming to terms with the sacrifices she has made on behalf of all. In general, the women largely conclude that none of them – and by implication nor does the reader – have control, as mothers and women, of their own destiny, of life, of their offspring; but to talk, to reveal the heart, has healing benefits. As Fedler writes, “women know how to take care of each other”.

Unbecoming is compelling and empowering, a worthy addition to Fedler’s previous Secret mothers’ business and The reunion. I recommend it – engrossing and tender – to all who face the challenges of letting go, to readers heading for a time of life without children, perhaps without partners, and considering, with hope, what fruitful – also intense and challenging – years may lie ahead.

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