Amy Witting

I For Isobel

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I For Isobel Summary

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In 1989, the Australian author Amy Witting published I for Isobel, a coming-of-age novel broken into five short story-like sections that each focus on a key moment in the life of the title character as she grows up in 1950s-1960s Australia. Told from the point of view of Isobel, I for Isobel can be thought of as the origin story of an artist – a description of the way a troubled, often abused, but tough and resourceful young woman realizes that her calling in life is to be a writer.

The first section of the novel, titled “The Birthday Present,” opens on an annual family vacation when Isobel Callaghan is about to turn nine years old. Isobel’s abusive, image-conscious, monstrous mother, who patently hates her daughter, has declared that since Isobel’s birthday is in January, Isobel won’t get presents – just like every year. The previous year, when Isobel contrived to tell the other hotel guests that it was her birthday, her mother was infuriated. This year, Isobel’s plan is to retreat into books. Isobel’s voracious and slightly precious reading is praised by the Halwoods, a proper and correct family, whose attention makes her mother nervous. Emboldened, Isobel tells another girl at the hotel about her birthday, and that girl’s father gives Isobel a present – a fancy brooch. Isobel’s mother beats her severely, but doesn’t take the brooch away, much to Isobel’s relief. As Isobel points out, her mother is not only hitting her, but also trying to slap her way out of her own cage.

The second section is named “False Idols and a Fireball.” When Isobel tells her mother that she has seen a pink fireball after a rainstorm, her mother accuses her of lying. Isobel as usual retreats into her reading – although her devotion to her book makes her worry that they are displacing her Catholicism. Isobel stressfully relives all the times when her mother would insistently ask, “Do you love me?” Later, when Isobel’s sister Margaret asks their mother about a missing gold bracelet, their mother claims that Isobel lost it. However, it’s clear that this isn’t true – more likely, the bracelet has been sold as the family is in some financial distress. Knowing that her mother is lying, Isobel doesn’t argue and instead finds reassurance in her own understanding of what is true and false.

Section three, “The Grace of God and the Hand-Me-Down,” starts with Isobel’s decision to hold on to the “state of grace” she feels in church. Isobel’s calm grates on her mother, however, and she harasses Isobel until Isobel remembers a moment when her father pulled a knife on her mother at dinner because of her incessant nagging. Meanwhile, Margaret has been cast in a play at school – a play with a co-ed cast. The play itself is anti-climactic, but Isobel’s mother is now convinced that Margaret is a boy-crazy delinquent, taking her anger out primarily on Isobel. The family is visited by the rich Aunt Noelene, their father’s sister. After a fight, Noelene leaves presents of clothes for the girls and storms off. There is a beautiful yellow dress for Isobel, but Isobel happily gives it to Margaret. Enraged, their mother rips the dress off Margaret, ruining it. Isobel finally loses her state of grace as she lets loose and screams at her mother.

In the fourth section, “Glassware and Other Breakable Items,” we learn that Isobel has become an orphan at 16 and will live independently at a boarding house run by Mrs. Bowers. She is thrilled at getting this new start, although Mrs. Bowers is very strict. Isobel gets a job at a glass importer, translating German letters. Although this work is mostly pleasant, with the notable exception of the overbearing attention of Mr. Richard, a supervisor, Isobel finds herself having trouble connecting with her coworkers because she doesn’t know how to correctly communicate with other people.

In a coffee shop, Isobel meets a group of literate and intellectual young people. They introduce her to authors she hasn’t heard of before. She befriends Nick, rejects Trevor’s romantic advances, and consoles Diana, who is obsessed with Nick and feels suicidal. Their intelligent company forms a contrast to the bickering and judgmental attitudes of the other residents of Isobel’s boarding house. There, when Mrs. Bowers’s daughter marries without her mother’s consent, Isobel starts bearing the brunt of Mrs. Bowers’s anger. One day, Isobel learns that Nick is dead after being hit by a car. When she tells Diana the news, Diana doesn’t seem to care. On her way home, Isobel sees a sign about a room for rent, and with relief leaves the boarding house.

The final section is called “I for Isobel,” and it opens with Isobel waking up after a one-night stand in the unfamiliar apartment of Michael. After a hostile morning interaction, she steals a book about saints from his shelf and leaves, thrilled at her freedom. Flipping through the book and recalling some unpleasant events from her childhood, Isobel decides to visit her home village. There, she encounters an old neighbor who still remembers a poem Isobel wrote about the woman’s cat. Although Isobel felt that publishing this poem in the newspaper was wrong – clearly an idea her mother put into her head – the neighbor had actually loved the poem. Overcome with feelings of anger about her parents, Isobel realizes that she is now a writer, and spends the rest of the day converting its adventures into a short story.

Although this novel’s raw and harsh mother-daughter relationship caused publishers to reject it at first, it became a bestseller when it came out, and won the Patrick White Award in 1993. Witting’s writing has been widely praised from the very beginning. After her first short story was published in The New Yorker, the poet Kenneth Slessor was quoted saying, “I’ll publish any word she writes.” Since then, her reputation has remained very high, and she is acknowledged to be one of Australia’s best writers.