The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

A quick rundown…The story of three different young women working in a Sydney department store in the 1950s.

Strengths: Reminds me of David Jones, Sydney. Witty with excellent characterisation.

Weaknesses: Too short!

Why I read it: I thought it might be like Are You Being Served? in book format

Pages: 233

Published: 1993

Publisher: Text Publishing

Setting: Sydney, Australia

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

If you liked this, try: For a different look at 1950s Australia, check out They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta

The Women in Black was a book I’d had on my ‘must buy’ list for some time. Fortunately, the release of Text Classics meant that I simply had to buy it! In my hazy recollection, I thought that this book might be something like the television programme Are You Being Served? but with a bit more weight to it.

I was wrong. In no way should this book be compared to that TV show – this book is SO MUCH MORE. (Yes, I’m shouting. Delete those thoughts of Mrs Slocombe’s hair immediately). This is a book about Sydney (Australia) of the 1950s, of growing up, of relationships, friendships and a culture slowly changing to accept the influx of immigration post WWII. It’s a lovely book and stands beautifully on its own. Well done Text Publishing for reprinting this one and adding it as an Australian classic!

The women in black that the title refers to are the women who work at a central Sydney department store (I had David Jones, Elizabeth St in my head). They all work in Ladies’ Wear in F.G Goode’s. There’s the somewhat unhappily married Patty, whose life seems in a bit of a rut. The new Christmas casual is Lisa, who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go on to university against her father’s wishes. Fay needs a man. Magda seems exotically foreign to the others (she eats salami!) but her growing friendship with Lisa will bring these women together.

This book celebrates a different time when nothing happened and nothing was open on a Sunday, when only the bravest tried those new foreign foods like salami and girls left school, got married and had children. But characters like Magda (who is Hungarian) and Lisa challenge the status quo to change Australia into what we see today. Coming from a blended heritage of English-Australian and European immigrant-Australian, I found this fascinating. A world where people were scared to eat salami, olives and rollmops? Where boiled potatoes were as good as vegetables got? It seems so different to today, when Australians eat anything and everything – and are more accepting of the unknown.

This book is delightful. Light, pleasing and enjoyable, it should take a proud place in our history.


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