Entertainment Books

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Review: The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age by Jane Shilling

Chatto & Windus, €19.99

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST: Standing naked for the cover photograph, echoing a pose once
adopted by Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Shilling defies the stern judgment of the ticking clock.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST: Standing naked for the cover photograph, echoing a pose once adopted by Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Shilling defies the stern judgment of the ticking clock.

Cassandra Jardine

THE pivotal event of Jane Shilling's life was becoming pregnant 20 years ago. Before that she was an unhappy, young would-be writer, at odds with her stiflingly suburban parents, waiting for her romantic life to sort itself out.

I know, because I had a walk-on part in her drama as the landlady of the father of her child.

In her memoir of middle age, Shilling credits me -- accurately -- with taking "a keen and not entirely malicious" interest in the advent of her child. Naturally I take a keen and entirely unmalicious interest in finding out what exactly has happened to the watchful woman who two decades ago seemed to bristle with sensitivities.

The bare facts of her life since then are unremarkable: she settled into semi-reclusive single-motherhood, living in a cottage in Greenwich, writing newspaper columns and reviews to earn her living. Decade followed decade so fast that she found she had scarcely settled into her 30s or her 40s before they were over.

Six years ago, aged 47, she decided that the time had come to take stock. What had she done with her life? Where was she going?

Looking back, she realised: "What I did while I was waiting for my real life to begin -- the tending of the house and garden, the small extravagances of self-adornment and objects to decorate my house, the cooking, the books, the writing by which I earned a living, the cherishing of my child, my friends and animals -- all this was my life."

Peering forward into middle and old age, she wanted more control over her choices but the options appeared limited. In youth, she had found abundant, glamorous, nuanced role models in the magazines and books, from Vogue to Middlemarch, which peopled her life; but for older women the options seemed to be limited to a series of caricatures -- old dear, battling crone, faux gamine.

Other women, she observes, get round the problem of middle age by ignoring it or making light of it. Shilling is not prepared to settle for either elasticated waistbands or the freedom to be grumpy. That much is evident from the outside of The Stranger in the Mirror.

Inside she may bemoan the effects of gravity on her now 53-year-old flesh, but standing naked for the cover photograph, echoing a pose once famously adopted by Simone de Beauvoir in a photograph by Art Shay, she defies that judgment. Bottom pert, waist slender, this is a women who intends to resist the ticking of the clock.

Her story may not be unusual, but the elegance and range of her writing most certainly is. She covers the set-pieces of middle-age exploration with verve: a visit to a dermatologist who injects her with Botox, her outrage at the hideous fashions aimed at the fiftysomethings, the small talk of a former lover.

There are moments of high comedy -- some newspaper editors may squirm at her descriptions of interviews in which she is humiliated, sacked and, finally, Judas-kissed.

There are, too, moments of deep, usually maternal, emotion. All mothers of teenaged sons will squirm with her as she annoys her sleeping child by hanging T-shirts from the huge yellow feet that stick out from the end of the bed.

But the heart of the book lies in Shilling's relationship with herself as daughter, lover, writer, mother. While drawing on the experiences of others, she never loses the touchstone of her subjective impressions. Like Montaigne, the essayist on whom she modelled her early attempts at writing, she elevates navel-gazing into something beyond self-absorption.

Anyone who enjoyed Candia McWilliam's much-lauded memoir on blindness, What to Look For in Winter, will love this book too. Both women have the ability to survey what Shilling describes as the "bruising series of hidden rocks: divorce, bereavement, illness, death" that lie beneath the surface of middle age. Her way of negotiating a path through these hazards may only get her as far as the next set of rocks, but the journey is a delight.


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