Review: Ashley Hayon Amy Witting

A Reckoning: A Change in the Lighting by Amy Witting

Brace yourself: Amy Witting throws her first punch hard, fast and almost immediately.

At the moment which became history, Ella Ferguson was wearing nightgown, dressing-gown and slippers… Her husband, Professor Bernard Ferguson MB, FRCS, was knotting his tie. That was why she was watching him. For thirty-two years she had taken pleasure in watching him knot his tie, handling the rich, dark silk, sliding the tightening loop under his shirt collar, where it settled into a firm, precisely placed knot. He was still extremely handsome, having stiffened more in mind than in body, but that movement recreated for her the beautiful, earnest young man she had married. Buying him ties as presents, which seemed such a sedate occupation, was for her what the young people called a turn-on.

And then, halfway down page two of A Change in the Lighting, Witting floors—unmoors—her main character entirely. Ella Ferguson is elegant, polite, and assured in her own world. In the passage of just a few hundred words, not even a minute of time, Ella loses her marriage, her version of herself, the security of how she understood the world and how she thought things went along.

‘I think divorce is the best solution for all concerned,’ her husband says, his tie neatly tied—his morning ritual thus complete.

‘He finished knotting his tie!’ thinks Ella.

Yes, he did. And there it is, an end and a breakage; as swift as it is shocking.

She makes him say it. She makes him tell her who else is involved in the end of their marriage—who else is ‘concerned’ in or by all this. She makes him tell her about his bright young researcher, the one he wants to be married to instead of her.

‘Of course we want to give you every consideration,’ he says after he’s told her the worst of it. Pompous. Despicable. Fool.

At the bottom of the third page, Ella deals her own blow. ‘Thank you for the information,’ she says to him. Then, ‘get out. Get out of this house and stay out. Take your things and go. Don’t come back here tonight. Don’t come back here again ever.’ And he does; and he doesn’t.

Sophie, their eighteen-year-old daughter, advises Ella to ‘play it’ like an illness. Sophie pours her a whisky and suggests sleeping tablets or tranquillisers: ‘I could get a scrip from a friend.’

The nights are particularly cruel to those who rage and grieve. Things get broken; hearts, and minds.

A Change in the Lighting was Amy Witting’s third novel, published in 1994, when the author was seventy-six. It arrived between her two best-known books—I for Isobel and Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop—and after her receipt of the 1993 Patrick White Award for a writer who, while making an outstanding contribution to Australian literature, ‘may not have received due recognition’.

The idea of due recognition is relevant to Ella. The prisms through which she has perceived her husband, her marriage, her children and herself are shaken up— sometimes merely reoriented; sometimes smashed into dangerous shards—and she enters her first dealings with lodgers and solicitors, the timid and the treacherous, encountering people who regard her in new ways.

Almost everything she knows and banks on falls away. Witting strips Ella of many corporeal and incorporeal trappings, as well as much of what she thinks she understands and remembers. But love makes some sort of rescue in the end. As Witting herself said when discussing an earlier short story, ‘without love nothing can add up.’

This is not to suggest that the book—or Ella herself—achieves any pat or saccharine closure. There’s little that’s comforting or comfortable here. Even the era works against the solace and reassurance Ella needs. In the days before mobile phones, family members could simply disappear, and if they didn’t tell you where they’d gone, how could you know?

In her recent essay ‘Vagina’, a splendid exploration of things often silenced and omitted, the novelist Tegan Bennett Daylight writes of the authorial tendency— necessity—to leave things out: ‘When you write you find yourself inventing characters without friends, or with families who are dead or far away…You can’t contain the multitudes of life.’

She’s right, of course, and the scope of our overly connected world is more vast than ever these days. Just think how many people need to be excluded to make someone fit on a page when a realistic circle of friends and all their comments is now—unprecedented—the size of a mighty chorus. Ella’s social world is small: a couple of off-stage minor acquaintances; her best friend, Pam (who is also, perhaps, not yet duly recognised by Ella herself); her husband and his paramour; and her children, her anchoring children. Yet this feels like an accurate reflection of how we apprehend and mistake each other— and still now too, with so many points of connection linking us, intimately, to more friends than we’ve had to keep up with before. Like Ella, we each have to make our own way. Which is perhaps why she rises from the page, both familiar and distinct.

Those earlier, less connected times both suit and mirror Ella’s disposition and her sense that a shock, an assault, should ‘be dealt with in private’. There’s a dignity, a formality in this; it’s a long way from total immersion, total disclosure. One of the kindest acts rendered to Ella is when Pam announces the break-up to a mutual acquaintance ‘as if it was tired old news’. Nothing to see here; don’t make much of this. Trying to dim the high-beam gaze of gossip.

All of which also speaks truly of how lives do proceed—the unlooked-for punctuation of cataclysmic events, and the on-and-on spattering of daily incidental moments whose even less looked-for intersections or outcomes can wreak their own entirely unforeseen havoc.

Amy Witting is the pen name of Joan Levick, née Fraser (1918–2001), chosen specifically for all that that adjectival surname implies: things done deliberately, in full awareness or consciousness; people conscious or aware of the full facts of a situation. Ella is not witting, literally or figuratively, early on in A Change in the Lighting. She’s the damaged and disassembled cuckold, pawing her way forward through each strictly delineated moment. (‘Routine was a frail net stretched over emptiness, ensuring survival, if nothing more.’) Her life had pivoted once before, more than three decades earlier, when she walked along a beach at night with Bernard Ferguson and he spoke of wanting neither money nor advancement, but rather to contribute ‘to the sum of human knowledge’.

‘Is this a proposal?’ she had to ask him, and it was.

She has ‘been waiting all my life for that young man…Always I’ve been waiting for that young man to show.’ He never has. Perhaps he wasn’t real to begin with, the Bernard with that one dream that one night. ‘I could have loved a failure,’ she realises eventually, ‘more than a success, perhaps—but that kind of love, he wouldn’t have wanted from me.’ How far she’s come through all this mess; how much she’s seen.

This recasting, this questioning everything: it’s one way we navigate our shocks. And if Julian Barnes parses history as ‘autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report’, that description suits personal memory in many ways as well. To interrogate those inventions and misinterpretations under the full glare of any light is an extraordinary act, and Ella rarely flinches, flicking on bulb after bulb. She invites new people into her home, with no idea of what might happen. There’s William, a writer who may or may not be brilliant, and who ends up with much more from his lodgings than anyone might have predicted. There’s Rob, Sophie’s boss, a filmmaker. Rob (‘Rob’s a female, Mum’) recognises creative soul, and she sparks in Ella a subtle love ‘for which there were no gestures’—nothing worthy of the prejudiced outrage she also sparks among some of the Fergusons (‘Mum. She’s a dyke’).

Ella even admits her husband’s lover, the young and excoriatingly insensitive Louise (‘long, sharp nose, full cheeks, grape-grey shallow-set eyes’)—both in person and in her own imagination. The latter encounters allow her to then imagine garrotting her nemesis, piano wire around the neck, ‘until the eyes began to bulge and the tongue to protrude, swelling and blackening’. Perhaps Ella would agree with the novelist Christa Wolf: ‘How fortunate that our thoughts do not dance in visible letters above our heads. If they did, any contact between human beings, even a harmless social gathering…could easily become a convocation of murderers.’

And yet it helps. Ella is not, as she says, used to ‘poking and prying at her emotions, like cleaning out a dirty old cupboard with God knows what at the back of it’—but she sets to the task like the assiduous housekeeper she is. And she’s as honest with herself as she is brutal. In capturing Ella, Witting captures how any of us might look or think at our worst, holding ourselves up against any available measure in a desperate effort to find some argument for, some defence of who we are or what we’ve done.

And life goes on. The business of A Change in the Lighting—the meals cooked, the rugs hooked; the embraces lost, resisted, recalled; the climactic destruction of a sort of shrine to Ella’s old life—is at one level the stuff of action, of a plot striding forward. But it is also impeccable metaphor, and it charges the novel’s moments with as much meaning as a reader might be brave enough to plumb. Think deeper; dig further; go on down. Amy Witting stays away from nothing on the page; she offers no one her protection. She requires the same of Ella, and of her readers too, if they’re up for that task. It’s part of what makes a deceptively simple novel so complex and rewarding.

And so Ella goes on, thanks to friendship, a recast and reimagined interpretation of her family, the work that she dismisses as craft and which Rob rightly names creativity. She makes wonderful picture rugs from old fabrics: farms, fields of flowers, a vast and canopied sky. She makes beauty by recycling things abandoned or outgrown. It’s as lovely a metaphor as you could look for in a story of someone startled to find she needs to remake herself, and then getting on with that job.

I was reading A Change in the Lighting one night, vaguely aware of the night noises all around me as I walked back into Ella’s world—a genteel Sydney suburb, more than twenty years ago. In my own world, in Brisbane, on this side of the millennium, I heard the breeze in the trees; two possums on the roof; the lull of traffic on the nearby main road that, sometimes, I can almost mistake for the small turn of waves on a shore.

Out of nowhere, I heard glass crash—the impact, then the shattering—and then a complete and guttural sobbing that wrenched and wracked for ten seconds, maybe more. And then stopped.

I sat in my pale pool of reading light and stared at the darkness beyond my window, beyond my room. There were no lights in the house next door—the only light I could see was the streetlight—and I couldn’t pick the direction from which the sounds had come.

It was late, after midnight; heading for the stretch of time when imagination can make the strangest things feel reasonable, not to mention very real. I sat still, thinking about the precise pitch of the breakage, the exorbitant depth of the grief. The pages I held also told of breakages and grief: ‘Sheer wanton destruction, glass shattered in all the pictures…Every glass smashed from the corner cabinet.’

There’s such power, such fomenting passion in Ella Ferguson’s story that it wouldn’t have surprised me if the incident had actually risen out of the book to be realised in my night, called into being by Amy Witting’s crystal-clear and razor-sharp words. She’s that kind of precise and vivifying writer. There’s depth and truth and vastness in what she crafts.

This is the introduction to the Text Classics edition of A Change in the Lighting, published 1 May 2017.