Susan Green’s first novel for adults features seventy-eight-year-old Elizabeth Henderson, known as Bliss. And some of her life has been bliss, but some of it has been hard. Now in a nursing home, knowing that death is not far away, she reflects on her life, some of it she has not shared with others, particularly her surviving family, three of her step-children. This was deliberate. She wanted to be ‘bright and shiny for them’, wanting to be the ‘rare exception, the good stepmother’, and afraid of judgement. This is narrated by Bliss in the first person.
The now adult step-children’s lives, and their feelings about Bliss are told in other chapters in the third person. Paula and Anne live in the same state, and visit Bliss regularly, Paula daily and Anne weekly. The sisters are very different in personality, as is how they see and treat Bliss. Paula wonders how Anne could ‘imagine that Bliss’s full, wild, flawed life was tragic and wasted? By what criterion did she judge?’ Tom lives interstate and comes to visit, bringing the four of them together. The siblings all have their own issues which are portrayed with insight.
The steps that led to Bliss entering care are detailed, and having been through this process recently with my own mother, rang true. As Bliss said when the final fall happened ‘No going home. No home. Just here’.
With perception Green shows Bliss’s reaction to marrying Alec and taking on four children, being step-mother, without having met them first. Their mother and the effect she had on their lives while she was still alive, and after her death is portrayed with sensitivity. The fourth step-child, Caroline, demonstrates the difficulty with mental health and addiction – a ‘tricky girl, in death as in life’.
On her death-bed Bliss recognises that ‘that my mistakes and missteps must be owned and even embraced. If not at the time, then later, for everything that happens becomes part of you, nourishing you, helping you to grow. Whether you judge it good or bad does not, in the end, matter at all. And – I did not know this at twenty- three, but I do now –‘everything’ includes the lies you tell yourself, and the pathetic manoeuvres of denial. Even the gaps, the things you cannot remember because they cannot be faced’. She saw her life ‘as if seen from far, far above like an aerial photograph, with the lines and tracks of fate, the dead ends and the roads not taken all clearly visible’.
Depression in many forms is addressed– post-natal depression, bipolar, ‘mid-life crisis, and resorting to drug abuse, with the different responses to these over the last decades, and what it does to families. There is also the assessment of the role of women in paid work and in the home, through Bliss, Paula, Anne, Bliss’s mother and her ‘aunts’.
The overriding message that appearances can be deceiving, that people can be judged on face value, runs through this intuitive story of a fabulous and complex woman and the people in her life.