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Book Review : Conjured Fate of an Unlovely Eccentric

August 18, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville (Viking: $16.95)

Here's a novel where the narrative voice is everything. "Lilian's Story" is told by Lilian herself, starting at the unpromising beginning: "The baby slipped further down off the breast, but the mother lay smiling and staring at the ceiling . . . until the baby fell to the floor. When (the maid) came in, her fingers reddened from dusting the banister, she saw Lilian's tiny fingernails scraping weakly over the patterns of the carpet, and her wet mouth opening and closing on air."

This tiny, miscared-for mite should have been a boy, of course. What daughter isn't second choice? Lilian's mother is absent-minded, ladylike and, horrified by her husband's insistent sexuality, retreats into a series of headaches that will take her out of circulation for the rest of her life. Lilian's father, Albion, named for his English homeland, is obsessed by facts: How many snails the French eat, how much ice cream the Eskimos refrain from eating. He doesn't love his daughter, Lil, and when Lil's little brother is born, her father doesn't love him either.

The two children, Lilian and John, don't look the way they should: John is puny, he wears thick glasses and his announced intention in life is to become deaf. Lil, in her father's words, is "fat as a sausage." Lil's not just fat, she's hefty and red and sweaty and bursting with life. Her body, in its many functions, seems to work at double time: She weeps, laughs, wears her bloomers over her head and sees the other little girls in her suburban crowd from a great distance.

In the real world, the normal world, the boys are lean and strong and tanned, the girls are ladylike--even at the age of 10. Why, then, does Lil spend her time beating up the boys and getting walloped by them? It's a question not answered until the second part of her story, when Lilian, as a young woman, is offered advice by her best girlfriend: " A diet, and my dressmaker, she is a genius. " But Lil answers, "I would be a mediocre pretty girl . . . and I am too arrogant to be mediocre." Lilian, by this time, knows she is fated to be different for the duration of her life: "Clothed in my bulk, I was free to try for other kinds of admiration and other kinds of attention."

'I Will Be Remembered'

Lilian is like many human beings who are poor in the sight of others. I have a secret, she announces repeatedly, I know things that others don't. I am important, I will be remembered. But everything in her life dictates that she remain anonymous and unimportant. Clearly, this is not the story of one fat, eccentric female but of many women whose only wealth is conjured, imagined from the chaotic unformed material of their souls.

Things aren't always as they appear; Lilian, despite her fat, is intensely attractive to her father. The worst happens, and Lil runs away, leaving her home by the bay and taking a bus inland to the deep bush--yes, this is an Australian novel--where she lives like a savage, and strolls naked into a rough-and-tumble bar out in the middle of nowhere. " You will always remember this ," she remarks to the astonished barmaid, and indeed, though her irate and very guilty father will later have her committed for a while to an institution for the insane, Lilian has begun to realize her true ambition. Now she is no longer dull, unimportant, negligible, without a secret. Now she has begun to create a legend, a set of memories, simply by being what she is.

Even a fat woman can be loved (no matter what society says), and at the university, before these other events have transpired, Lil has had her suitors: one, a burly boy who raises beef who wants to be her "mate" in the Australian sense, and the other, a wispy pauper who invents a fortune in diamonds. But Lil can't take it! She can't stand the choices, or the lack of them. She hates living at home under her father's rule. She avoids the matchmaking, the tennis and lawn parties for her group, by clambering up into the nearest tree. She is jilted by the one suitor and jilts the other, and--after she gets out of the asylum--declares herself a virgin again, in spite of that hideous rape by her father.

Lilian emulates the first Queen Elizabeth, and here, in city streets now, ragged, fat, reciting yards of Shakespeare, she becomes a legend, a Virgin Queen. By now everybody knows her. Now, when she climbs in the cab of an innocent passer-by and says, "You will always remember this. You will tell this to your children," she knows she's right.

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