Aside

‘A Plethora of Women’. David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981.

15 Nov

A Plethora of Women’.  David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981. Originally published in Issue 8 Island Magazine November 1981

David Ireland’s recent obsessions, women and leopards, appear once again as central themes in his latest novel City of Women. Though very much a self contained novel, there are a number of features which are directly related to his previous novel, A Woman of the Future, the most obvious being his thematic concentration on women. In A Woman of the Future he traced, in the first person, the life of a girl, Alethea Hunt, from her earliest recollections, until she finishes high school and begins a transformation into a leopard. Ireland attempted to withdraw from the novel by claiming that his role was that of an editor, organising notebooks, papers and diaries into publishable form. City of Women, on the other hand, focuses on the life of a retired woman, Bille Shockley, who appears to live in a Sydney from which all men have been banned.

Another apparently important connection between the two novels is the presence of a leopard. Alethena Hunt eventually flees to the country to seek freedom as a leopard, Billie Shockley has a pet leopard, Bobbie, who she takes for walks through East Sydney, the Domain and the Botanical Gardens, Billie sees in her leopard a possible replacement for her “first Bobbie”, who appears at first to have been her lover, but who, we eventually realise, was her daughter.
City of Women even more than A Woman of the Future , is a novel by a man about women. The life Billie leads in the ‘City of Women’ is a very masculine one. Her life revolves around a hotel, ‘The Lover’s Arms’, where the woman are presented in what would otherwise be stereotypical male roles. Society, in fact, seems to be same as when it was dominated by men. There are still football teams, pub brawls, stag nights (now called ‘doe nights’), pack rape and so on. The only difference is that now women drink in the pubs, play football and rape the male hitchhiker and leave him in a coma at the side of the road on their way to the races at Newcastle.

On at least one occasion the narrative is disrupted by an inconsistency in the text. We are told, early in the novel, that Sydney is now a city completely (or almost completely) free of men. But on page 19 Billie relates a story about a woman called Victoria, who steals a large white timber packing case from the tractor warehouse where she works as a guardperson. It seems strange that in a city where the only men are captured or hired to perform in orgies, or who sneak in to symbolically ‘rape’ a lone female by cutting her open and masturbating into the wound, that the yard manager of Victoria’s warehouse should be male. Perhaps it is an oversight on Ireland’s part which somehow managed to sneak past the proof readers. Or perhaps the warehouse is supposed to be outside the city where men are still in control. If so, it is the only occasion in the novel when the fact that a woman is able to seek employment outside the city is not emphasised. Although such an incident may seem minor, it is one of the ways in which the reader is always aware of the male writer behind his female characters.

The novel’s main strength lies in it’s portrayal of Sydney. Billie spends most of the book walking her leopard through the Domain, the Gardens, and to her favourite pub in Cathedral street. Sydney is used as a foundation for Billie’s despair at being “Sixty two and afraid of solitude. Deathly afraid.” To those readers familiar with Sydney, the streets Billie wanders are crisp and real; and for those who aren’t. a detailed map of the area appears on the inside cover. Although it maybe going too far to compare Ireland’s Sydney with Joyce’s Dublin, Ireland creates his Sydney with an instance on realistic detail approaching the Joycian ideal.
City of Women, like most of Ireland’s previous novels, can be seen to operate on three levels of reality. The first level is the ‘absolute’ reality of the physical city of Sydney; the second is the ‘constructed’ reality of the City of Women; and the third is the obviously surrealist world, such as the valley of leopards, which takes place in Billie’s dreams. The problem with this novel is that each level of realism is in conflict with the others. The successfully evoked image of Sydney is in conflict with the male dominated view of female society, while the surrealism is so typical Ireland that it has become predictable. This has the result of making the entire novel appear uneven, the successful aspects being destroyed by its weaknesses.

City of Women concludes with an attempt to place the novel in a conventional framework. Billie’s daughter arrives outside her flat with her new husband, trying to get her mother to open the door. Billie hears their pleading, and the explanations of the landlord, but does not associate them with herself. We realise, however, that the ‘City of Women’ exists only in Billy’s head, and learn that her pet leopard was, in reality, a large yellow cat. Since the death of the cat she has not left her flat, relying on her landlord to buy her food and post her letters to her daughter who she believes to be living on the North Coast. Billie has created a fantasy world for herself and her daughter, and when her daughter rebels against it and leaves her to get married, she refuses to recognise reality and becomes overwhelmed by her fantasy.
While such an ending was obviously designed to conclude the novel with a strong dose of pathos, it has the effect of leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling of having been ‘let down’. In the context of the novel, the ending can be likened to a primary school composition, where, when the bell goes and the story has to be finished quickly, the student writes: “and then I woke up.”

It is easy to understand the reasons why the majority of critics have approached City or Women with caution, for, while in parts the novel is enjoyable, overall there are too many problems for a reader to be left in any state other than frustration. In the final instance, City of Women appears to be a powerful argument for leaving the writing of women’s books to women, whole we can only hope that in this novel Ireland has worked out the obsessions which has dominated his last two books.

Mark Roberts 1981

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