Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ms Cellophane by Gillian Polack

First published as Life Through Cellophane by Eneit Press, Ms Cellophane by Gillian Polack was recently republished by Momentum Books as an ebook. While I agree that Ms Cellophane is the catchier title, I can't help but feel that the original title described the book better.

This is by far the most literary book I've read all year. To clarify, I mean literary in the sense of the genre in which the main character's journey is internal, as opposed to the external journeys typical of genre fiction (SFF, crime, romance, etc). That said, Ms Cellophane is also decidedly magical realism.

The protagonist is Elizabeth, who is made redundant from her public service job at the start of the novel and struggles a bit to work out what she's going to do with her life, beyond the immediacy of spending her redundancy package on redecorating her house. As part of the redecorations, she buys an antique mirror which, as you might guess from the cover, features heavily. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth grows closer to a couple of her ex-workmates and, eventually, starts to venture out of her shell. Most telling is that the beginning of the novel is written mostly in diary entries and the end mostly in third person, as she grows less dependent on diarising.

The book sets a very specific mood. I was never bored, but I found I read the first half quite slowly and had to be in the right mood to take it in. The second half was a bit more fast paced and harder to put down, however.

Aside from a few key events, most of the action takes place in Elizabeth's head. It's very much the story of her self-actualisation and discovery. No longer does her job consume her entire life, despite what her somewhat psychotic former boss might want. She always thought of herself as a lonely spinster, but when first friends and then tentative love move into her life, these labels can no longer apply. Not that Elizabeth in any way hesitates to give herself endless labels.

What I enjoyed most about Ms Cellophane was the extent to which I found myself empathising with Elizabeth. I'm neither forty nor a retired public servant, but for most of the book I really understood exactly how she felt. Particularly in the nothing moments where she was rambling to herself. (Also, Polack is a deft hand at having her character say the same things in different and interesting ways that from another writer would probably have come across as repetitive.) I found it a very relatable book, despite my own personal lack of creepy mirror and psychotic ex-boss.

I recently read this interview/conversation between Alan Baxter and Gillian where Alan quotes his original review of Ms Cellophane to say:
I must admit that I felt a bit weird reading it. It was like I was hiding out during a secret women’s business meeting, hearing about things I shouldn’t know.
and they go on to discuss that reaction a bit further. Now having read the book, I'm even more fascinated by this response. Yes, it's a very personal look into Elizabeth's head but is the inside of Elizabeth's head really that foreign to men? If any men reading this have read the book, I'd love to hear from you. Of course, this type of narrative from the inside of Elizabeth's head is quite rare in speculative fiction which is usually concerned with some sort of exterior journey not solely an interior one.

All in all, I enjoyed Ms Cellophane a lot and I strongly encourage anyone looking for something a little bit different in spec fic to give it a go. And anyone who usually reads literary fiction (though why you're reading this blog, I'm not sure) and is looking for a soft introduction to magical realism.

4.5 / 5 stars

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