I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Australian author Madeleine St John before being attracted to the recently re-released cover of The Women in Black. This was her first novel published when the author was 52 years old in 1993 and has been re-released with a forward by Australian film maker Bruce Beresford and an obituary by the author's publisher (St John died in 2006). St John also had a book short listed for the Booker Prize in 1997 - The Essence of The Thing.
The Women in Black is the author's only book set in the country of her birth - Australia. It follows the lives of a group of female sales assistants working in the high class Sydney department store, Goodes, in the 1960's. Goodes is a fictional store but it is believed that St John based her setting on the real David Jones department store of the time.
Mrs Williams (Patty) and Miss Baines (Fay) work with others in the Ladies Cocktail Frocks section of the store - an area that is becoming increasingly busy as Christmas draws near as the book opens. The group is joined by temporary staff member, Lesley (who prefers to be called Lisa) a young girl who has just finished her leaving certificate at high school and is waiting anxiously to see if her results will be high enough for her to earn a scholarship at university.
The gorgeous, exotic and voluptuous Magda works in the Model Gowns section of the store (one of a kind gowns sold to women who do not want to attend a function looking like anyone else) and she enters the lives of these women in Ladies Cocktail Frocks in subtle - but no less dramatic ways.
I can't believe I have not discovered this book before - I devoured it in basically one sitting yesterday and I just wanted it to keep going - although the ending was divine and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I think it helped that I have spent quite a bit of time at the David Jones department store in Elizabeth St in Sydney so even though this book is set in a time before I was born I still feel like I had a familiar context firmly in mind as I was reading the book. Lesley/Lisa is a gorgeous character and over the short course of the book you do see her develop which is lovely to watch. Just a gorgeous, sweet, beautiful read!