Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Book review: The stranger in the mirror

I remember the first time I heard a friend describe herself as 'a middle-aged woman'. I was shocked. She's a year younger than me.

A few years later, at the age of 50-something and officially menopausal, I can't deny it any more. So I could not resist buying a book called The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age.

There are a lot of middle-aged women around and I think this is the book they've been waiting for. So why did the Guardian give it to a man to review? OK, he liked the book. But I don't think he actually 'got it' at all.

First, he writes off the observation about the public disappearance of middle-aged women as a cliche. Yes, it might have been mentioned before but that's only because no-one is bloody listening. And it matters, not just for political reasons - that's another story - but for personal ones. Because how do you know who or how to be if there isn't anyone in your situation that you can learn from?

Then, he says that the book 'makes the familiar strange'. No, it doesn't. It makes the strange familiar.

Becoming middle-aged is very strange indeed. So it helps to know that other people are going through the same thing. Jane Shilling has done what all writers aspire to: made the personal into something universal.

We all recognise the 'confusion and loss', the 'shedding of most of the things that have made me myself', the feeling that 'my youth was gone - and what had I done with it?' (Yes, I've 'drifted aimlessly through the decades of my prime', too.)

It's not just about melancholy. It's about practical things as well: keeping a job, getting a bad back; having nothing to wear.

It's hard going public about what middle age means to you: why do you think this blog does not have my real name on it? I'm glad someone has been brave enough to do it. She describes a feeling that has to be familiar to a lot of us: that there's a frontier to be crossed to 'the other side of youth'; she feels 'the longing for some directions to this difficult terrain'.

I've been looking for a road map for a long time. This isn't exactly it - maybe we all have to write our own - but it's reassurance, at least, that there are other people trying to find the path as well.

UPDATE (January 2012). The book is now out in paperback. Buy it!

No comments:

Post a Comment