Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop

Our first book of the year was an almost-classic Australian novel, Amy Witting's Isobel on her way to the corner shop. The second in what was expected to be a trilogy about Isobel, this novel won The Age Book of the Year in 2000, and was shortlisted for that year's Miles Franklin Literary Award and Nita B. Kibble Literary Award.

Born Joan Austral Fraser, Amy Witting is a pseudonym devised from a promise she made to herself to "never give up on consciousness', not be unwitting, but to always remain 'witting'".

The novel is set in Sydney and the Blue Mountains in the early 1950s. 

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Found it such a joy to read, to be in the life of this resilient, witty but still developing young woman. Loved the insights into humanity provided through setting it in the confined world of a sanatorium which contains a wide gamut of humanity - patients of a disease that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, and a variety of doctors, nurses and visitors. 
  • Found it tedious to start with, but as more characters were introduced, particularly with Dr Wang and the poetry discussions, started to like it, and by the end was enjoying it.
  • Enjoyed it from beginning, including when she should she was mad, and enjoyed the "scattergun of insightful things" said throughout.
  • Really enjoyed the novel, finding nearly all the characters captivating, and impressed by Witting's powers of observation.
  • Found it light, fun, after just reading Middlemarch, but on the fence overall. 
  • Took a little while to get into it, particularly the "dithering around at beginning", but enjoyed the good range of characters.
  • Read it a few weeks ago and it left no impression. Had forgotten most of it. It wasn't long, and a bit ho-hum.
  • Enjoyed it, and was drawn in quite quickly. Found it full of insights, and thinks there's "lots there". Reread the introduction by Maria Takolander, and felt that elevated the book. 
  • Took a little while to get into it, but then found it immersive, and enjoyed keeping up with Isobel. It's an observational book, providing an insightful look into a young woman finding her value. (Thought the first book, I for Isobel, was a knock out. It's more shocking, and poignant, and makes clear why she had no self worth.) 


We talked a bit about Isobel, and how she was "saved by the disease". She herself is relieved to find that her problem isn't "madness" as she'd been fearing. We enjoyed her early description of herself, when she first becomes sick, as being:

a parcel. She didn't mind being a parcel. It was easy.

It was clear from this that Isobel was very sick, because in the first few pages she had established herself as capable of being rebellious and not, as one of the group said, "a people-pleaser".

This is probably partly due to the fact that Isobel, growing up, was not used to people liking her. (We know this from I for Isobel, but also from the early pages of the novel and her own thoughts about herself.) Early in the novel she rebuffs affection from a young man, realising too late that he'd been sincere. An emerging writer (though they didn't use that term when the novel is set), she tries to set this right through a poem.

But, as the novel progresses, she comes to realise that people do like and care for her and that she's fortunate. However, it does require her to change her way of thinking:

I have to live as if...I have to assume that I have some importance to other people. I have to live accordingly. I have to step out into space.

Isobel is a wonderful character - warm, resourceful, accomplished (she can knit well too!), flawed, and willing to learn.

Other characters

The novel has a wide range of often colourful, but certainly "real" and well-drawn characters. We discussed several of them too, but particularly Val, Isobel's peevish room-mate for a significant part of her time in Mornington (the sanatorium). She's well-drawn as a self-centred inflexible woman who has few resources of her own. She makes life difficult for Isobel, but through her (as well as through others), Isobel learns and develops. Isobel comes to realise that Val is probably illiterate, but she is honest enough to recognise her "own illiteracy" - emotional illiteracy -  and that she'll have to work to overcome it.

But, there's a whole cast of lively characters, from the woebegone lovelorn but immature patient Lance to the poetry-loving Dr Wang, from patient Boris who looks out to help others to the patient who's also a cultured pianist, Elsa Soames. 

Sister Connor is, superficially, the stereotypical, senior nurse, enforcing the doctors' rules, wanting a tidy ward that the boss doctors won't criticise, but when it's appropriate she shows care, flexibility and wisdom.

And then there's the doctor-in-charge, Dr Stannard, who seems to have made Isobel a favourite. What does that all mean and how should Isobel react when he makes an interesting offer at the end?


We didn't talk a lot about themes, but we briefly touched on three: learning to be one's authentic self while not being unkind to others, understanding what love means, and making one's way as an artist (writer, in Isobel's case.)

The setting

Most of us enjoyed the setting, both in terms of the history of medicine, hospitals and tuberculosis sanitoriums, and regarding similarities and differences with hospitals today. Our nurse member who loves hospitals, and others of us who had experienced hospitals, found much that was true still today. We talked a little about the problem of institutionalisation and also about Isobel's awareness of the unspoken rules and etiquette involved, the dos and don'ts.

Some of the older members of the group had memories of people with, even dying from, tuberculosis, and also of the tuberculosis x-ray vans that would travel around schools.

One member said Witting, who had had TB herself, was quite delicate about the more gruesome aspects of TB, like the coughing, and didn't mention the ever-present sputum bowl till near the end.


We talked a little about the writing. It's not a long book but most of us felt there was a lot going on. We admired the way Witting "nails things" in just a few words. 

We also talked abut her career. One member had done some research into her career said that everything she wrote people wanted to publish. Witting was a teacher in Sydney with Thea Astley, who, admiring a particular short story suggested she submit it for publication. This story was published in The New Yorker in April 1965! Not bad eh? Patrick White also admired her writing.

Other books mentioned

Two books were mentioned as relevant to this read: Amy Witting's I for Isobel, and Margaret Barbalet's Blood in the rain which is set in the beginning of the 20th century and tells the story of two young people whose start in life is difficult like Isobel's. Others were mentioned but our failing memories couldn't remember the titles!

Present: 9 members