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The Unknown Woman

Books & Poetry

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Lilith Granger is an upper-class Sydneysider and stay-at-home mum who has the perfect life – or so it would seem.

At 44, Lilith lives in a mansion, spends the mornings at yoga, drives her kids to their expensive private school in her SUV, has had the luxury of not working for more than a decade and can afford to spend more than $2000 on a designer pink coat. But somewhere along the way, she has lost her sense of self. Once a gifted actuary who earned more than her husband, she’s now a mum, wife, daughter, friend and neighbour. But will the real Lilith Granger please stand up?

This second novel from Australian novelist Jacqueline Lunn is quite simply stunning.

Neither Lilith nor any of her other characters are particularly likeable, but perhaps that’s the point.

Told from alternating points of view – first that of Lilith, then someone in her life (friend, daughter, neighbour, etc) – this story is set over the course of a day with significant flashbacks to provide context. In a way, the novel is like a series of interconnected vignettes in which each character provides new perspective on Lilith and also tells their own story.

Some of the stories have little to do with Lilith’s life (such as the nurse who works in the aged-care home where Lilith’s father lives) and are really self-contained short stories. It doesn’t matter, they’re still imminently readable and demonstrate Lunn’s gift for characterisation.

The author seems to have a fascination with the impact of one’s past on their present. This was the theme of her first novel, Under the Influence, and again presents itself in The Unknown Woman. Lilith has had it tough, and as a result her actions in parts of the book are disturbing. Entitled and deranged would be another way of describing them. But that is the stuff of story – characters who do odd things, unlikeable things, and yet make us want to read on.

Lilith had a difficult childhood, her best friend is both abused and narcissistic, her brother a hapless bachelor who dabbles in sexual harassment, her teen daughter a selfie-obsessed pain in the butt, and her husband an absent workaholic. No wonder that to all of them, including herself, Lilith is the unknown woman.

This is top-end literary commercial fiction. The writing is so sharp, the imperfect characters so well drawn that it’s not an oversell to rate it as one of the best releases of 2014.

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