Waiting to Begin by Amanda Prowse
Review by Lauren Fardoe
Simultaneously a mid-life crisis epitomised and a teenage nightmare lived out in excruciating flashbacks, Waiting to Begin is an exciting and undeniably enjoyable read.
Presented in a dual narrative that switches between protagonist Bessie’s sixteenth and fifty-third birthdays, Prowse explores the consequences of misled actions taken in youth. Despite being a flawed character, Bessie is lovable and her misconstrued efforts are oddly familiar both in her teenage years and her middle age.
The story begins on a train journey, the destination of which is not revealed until the latter part of the novel. The foundations of Bessie’s personal relationships are introduced during her young, impressionable years; then, they’re built upon when her priorities as an established woman change and significantly shift these relationships. Defined in her middle age by her roles as wife and mother, Bessie appears to have lost her sense of self, while as a sixteen-year-old blinded by her naivety, her sense of self is arrogantly misplaced.
The main themes throughout this novel are time and the power to alter one’s own life through a change in mindset. Bessie’s sense of self is intimately explored via her narration, allowing the reader to observe her occasional selfishness towards the people in her life. The consistent shifts between past and present allow for plot progression and an entrenched readability; the time span between both narratives highlights how malleable youth can be, as fifty-three-year-old Bessie is almost unable to move past certain events of her teenage years. And as the novel flows on and the plot unfolds, we uncover more and more of Bessie’s depth as a character.
The difference in mindset between teenager Bessie and middle-aged Bessie is particularly poignant. Her loss of faith in herself and abandonment of her dreams is startling. Prowse skilfully raises tension by switching the narratives at crucial points, leaving the reader desperate to fill in the gaps, as the sharp dichotomy between two mentalities of the same woman hints at a considerable secret. The disparity in personal relationships is also significant; Prowse captures the all-consuming nature of a teenage best friend and all those invested emotions, whilst also pulling at heartstrings with older Bessie’s empty nest syndrome, as she feels left out of her own life.
Overall, Waiting to Begin is a surprisingly heartfelt read with enough funny moments to keep it light without stumbling into cheesiness like some other books. The only slight downside are the moments of repetitiveness due to the novel’s structure.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
Review by Halimah Haque
Following the story of Elle, a fifty-year-old, happily married mother of three, Heller’s The Paper Palace is a truly unsettling read. With its exploration of sexual assault, paedophilia and incest among other themes, this novel isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Told through first-person narration, the story begins on a perfect July morning when Elle awakens at the Paper Palace, her family summer home, which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different – the night before, Elle got together with her childhood friend and crush for the first time while their spouses chatted away inside.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle recounts all her memories, secrets and lies as she finds herself at a crossroads between her beloved husband, Peter, and the life she has always dreamed of with her childhood love, Jonas. Shifting between her childhood and present-day life, Heller depicts the experiences that have led Elle to this day.
Elle is portrayed as a child, a teen and eventually as an adult, with Heller revealing the troubling dark secrets behind her family’s devastating past. The prose is well-structured and subtly builds a picture of Elle’s life, illustrating her sheer strength as she’s able to overcome the nightmares of her youth and build a life far from it all.
Overall, I really appreciated the vivid description of the setting – of the cabin, woods and pond; there’s not a moment during the present-day scenes when readers can’t see and feel the atmosphere that Elle is consumed by. And while I’m usually deterred by unlikable characters, there’s something about Heller’s writing that makes them all the more intriguing to read about.
Despite this, there were many aspects of this book that I simply couldn’t process, be it the emotional and physical abuse the characters experienced as children, the explicit nature of the love scenes or the dark premise of the plot in general. As mentioned earlier, this book isn’t for the faint of heart, so if you usually avoid these taboo topics, this book may not be for you.