Sunday, 20 January 2013

Book Review: LOLA BENSKY by Lily Brett

Lola Bensky by Lily Brett

Title: Lola Bensky
Author: Lily Brett
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Read: October 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. A high-school dropout, she's not sure how she got this job - but she's been sent by her Australian newspaper right to the heart of the London music scene a the most exciting time in music history: 1967.
Drawing on her own experience as a young journalist, the bestselling author of 'Too Many Men' has created an unforgettable character in the unconventional and couragous Lola. Genuinely funny and deeply moving, 'Lola Bensky' shows why Lily Brett is one of Australia's most distinctive and internationally acclaimed authors.

My thoughts:

To think that I might never have picked up this book if I hadn’t received a preview copy through the Reading Room – what a loss that would have been! Lola Bensky is, as Lola herself may have said, a “smashing” book. Insightful, thought provoking and deeply moving, told in Lola’s fresh and innocent voice, it is one of the most original books I have read all year.

Lola Bensky is a young journalist in the 1960’s, travelling the world and interviewing young up-and-coming rock stars for an Australian music magazine. It is a life very different from her childhood, growing up as the only daughter of Jewish holocaust survivors in Melbourne. Forging a daily battle with her weight and trying to combat the guilt she carries as a legacy of her parents’ traumatic past, Lola uses her interviews and her elaborately planned diets to escape a world which often makes little sense to her. Through snippets of conversation with famous people such as Cher, Jimi Hendricks, James Morrison, Mama Cass and Janis Joplin, Lola explores the very human side of people who have since become legendary in their fame. Cher has borrowed Lola’s diamante studded false eyelashes and Lola is too embarrassed to ask her to return them. Jimi Hendricks discusses the use of hair curlers with Lola, who irons her own unruly hair straight every morning. And Mama Cass confides her own battle with her weight, a topic very close to Lola’s heart. Somehow details of Lola’s parents’ stories about life in the camps always make their way into the conversation, despite Lola’s intense efforts to distract herself from their reality.

Lola Bensky is an immensely likeable yet complex character – seeing the world through her eyes is eye-opening and challenges pre-conceived notions about the people she encounters as well as living the life of a displaced person. Growing up in the wake of one of history’s darkest chapters, Lola’s experiences are always tainted by the feelings of loss and shame she has inherited yet cannot ever fully comprehend. Renia, Lola’s mother, is present only in body, her mind still trapped in the past by the losses and suffering she has had to endure. Brett describes this perfectly in the following paragraph:

“Renia, Lola knew, felt she had to atone for not having died. She would never be free of that atonement. It would be as imprisoning as any prison. […]
Renia rarely laughed. She rarely felt joy, she felt fear and shame in abundance. Lola felt that Renia didn’t want her dead mother or father or any of her dead brothers or sisters to think she had a moment’s happiness in being the one who was left alive.”

Lola’s parents’ traumatic past does not fit well into the decade of the sixties, their suffering forgotten in an era advocating love, peace and harmony. Whilst other Jewish people instinctively understand Lola’s background, people who have not grown up in the shadow of the atrocities committed to her parents are shocked and unbelieving when confronted with Lola’s realities. As Lola calmly recounts stories she has grown up with, we reel in horror at the details of suffering revealed. As we follow Lola’s life from the age of 19 to the present moment, her daily struggles to find her own identity and peace of mind are exposed. Still shackled to the past by her parents’ memories and scars, which were never openly discussed with her, Lola must confront the deepest darkest places in her own soul to find the peace she so desperately craves.

Drawing on her own background, Lily Brett has written a novel which is not only extremely readable but also carries a message about life itself. It does so without ever sounding preachy, pretentious or depressing. Lola’s innocence permeates her narrative, her simple truths often shocking to those of us who have led more sheltered lives. Having grown up with grandparents scarred by their wartime experiences, a lot of Lola’s thoughts rang true for myself as well – especially her escapes into a fantasy world in an effort to escape the past.

Lola Bensky has earned its place on my favourite list for 2012. I can recommend it to anyone who not only likes an interesting and unusual read, but one that is thought provoking on many levels – and interesting. Brett’s own experiences as a young journalist bring people to life who have become inaccessible and untouchable because of their fame – to see such a human side to them is very touching and grounding. A wonderful book, highly recommended!

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