Eneit Press (2009)
Reviewed by Joanna Kasper, March 2010
Life Through Cellophane, the latest novel from Canberra author Gillian Polack, is the kind of book you start reading lightly and then find that it has taken you over and suddenly it’s dark and the family wants feeding and you can’t understand where the day went. I read it on my computer screen while sitting on a hard wooden chair and still didn’t want to move until it was finished.
It’s not that there is a lot of action in the book, great deeds are not done nor worlds in peril saved. It’s a story about a woman, in her forties, unmarried, recently made redundant from a public service position made untenable by the Boss from Hell. You’re thinking that this sounds like chick-lit, that it shouldn’t be reviewed on a site for fantasy. But you see, there’s this mirror…
The book starts with Liz both looking forward to and also dreading her last week in a job she enjoys with a boss she hates. The boss, whose expensively coiffured hair is the inspiration for the name “The Bee Hive”, given to her by her victims, has made Liz’s working life miserable and she plans to make life very difficult indeed for this middle management monster by doing just enough work to get through her last week and then hiding all the files. Delicious little daydream, I’m sure we’ve all had it at some time or other. Of course, things don’t always work out how we plan and when dealing with someone as vindictive and nasty as The Bee Hive it is always best to be prepared for the worst.
After Liz finally finishes her last day, and the hangovers from the pub crawl dissipate, she puts into action her plans to redo her life, starting with redecorating her home. She’s always wanted a large antique mirror for over her mantle and the garage sales and markets of Canberra offer up just exactly what she is looking for. One should always be suspicious though when the seller has only owned it for two days and has to sell it because his wife hates it vehemently. Homewares don’t usually inspire such passion, but the longer Liz owns her new mirror, the weirder it becomes.
This is very much an internal book, written mostly from Liz’s point of view. It is a study in how we look at ourselves, how we see the person inside compared with the one others see. How we can be surprised at the friends we have where we thought there were only acquaintances. How the pattern of a lifetime can be changed when we open our eyes and see how we’ve been cheating ourselves of all the things we really wanted. All it takes is that first step, whether we jump or are pushed, as is Liz. Taken out of her comfort zone, she re-examines much of what she has taken for granted, especially in her relationships with those around her. It doesn’t help when a completely new element is added into her life, which is not like anything she has encountered before. Mirrors have played a role in many a fantasy novel before, they are often treated as mystical portals to other worlds, windows in houses that exist outside our imagining. When Liz acquires her new mirror she discovers that it is not always a reflection of herself that she sees. You will certainly never look at ants in your house in the same way again. Her fascination with the mirror and what she sees inside affects her dealings with both old and new people in her life and eventually resolves a long-brewing problem that had the potential to make her a whole lot unhappier.
Polack writes descriptively and almost lyrically at times. There is a poetry to the way she puts her words together that makes reading her prose very easy and enjoyable. Even when describing the mundanity of work in the public service and the petty meanness from Liz’s boss, the words flow through the mind. A good book for reading aloud.
The point of view of the book changes from a third person to first person when we are reading Liz’s diary. It is never confusing or hard to follow, but allows the reader to see how different characters view the events that take place around the mirror in Liz’s lounge room.
There are some small inconsistencies in the plot, conflicts that arise between characters that are not resolved but glossed over. A particularly harrowing incident when Liz finds two of her friends reading, and laughing at her diary rings a little false. She, quite rightly, gets very angry and rages at them for their ingratitude and childishness but it felt out of character for them to have done it in the first place. By the next paragraph this is all apparently forgiven and forgotten, until it is raised again later in the story. When we see so much else of Liz’s inner thoughts and feelings, there is little examination of her anger at the betrayal of two trusted but childish friends. There are also some problems with pacing of the story, with leaps from one point to the next with seeming abandon. This doesn’t happen very often and really, these are small problems only and do not detract from the fascination of the story itself.
And for those of you who think that life ends at forty, and that apparently stodgy ex-public servants don’t get a love life, you will be much mistaken. Liz not only gets a love interest, but he’s younger and quite attractive. Score one for the single over-forties.
This is a highly recommended story, beautifully written, that will keep you engrossed and waiting for what comes next.