Amy Witting Website by Yvonne Miels

 Synopses

Brief outlines of Amy Witting's major publications.


The Visit

Travel Diary

I for Isobel

Marriages

Beauty is the Straw

A Change in the Lighting

In and Out the Window

Collected Poems

Maria's War

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop

Faces and Voices: Collected Stories

After Cynthia

 


The Visit

The Visit

Published in late 1977 The Visit was described as a 'minor masterpiece'. Critics were quick to pick up on the fact that a 'new important author' had emerged and to pinpoint the hall-marks of Witting's style – economical, evocative description, well-judged sharpness and sensitivity to the human condition.

Set in the country town of Bangoree (Kempsey in northern NSW, in fact) Witting's story reveals the 'private and public lives of the country-town teacher/librarian/doctor set ... their desires and frustrations ... friendships, rivalry and love'. Balancing this is the mystery of the long-dead poet Fitzallan and the woman who inspired his work. Witting supplies 'his' poems and they are the first indication of the finely crafted poems that she wrote later in life.

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Travel Diary

Travel Diary

This is Witting's first collection of poetry, self-published in 1985. These poems are now included as a section in Collected Poems 1998. Barbara Giles's review captures all the strengths of Witting's poetry:

These lucid, thoughtful and accessible poems, examined further, often reveal another dimension and other pleasures, an exuberance of words, lightly tossed-in referent borrowings, the clever use of commonplace things ... striking metaphor ... and a nice line in wit and philosophical speculation.

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I for Isobel

Isobel cover

Critics and public alike were shocked and exhilarated by this novel, and it has remained Witting's most popular work, with many people strongly relating to Isobel's sense of isolation and quest for identity. It is 'a portrait of the artist', documenting Isobel's journey away from her unhappy childhood, coming to terms with what she has named and dreads – 'the word factory' – and seizing the confidence to become what she wants to be, a writer.

Janette Turner Hospital captures the novel's essence in her review:

[Witting] lays bare with sugical precision the dynamics of families, sibilings, students in coffee shops, office coteries. One sometimes feels positively winded with unsettling insights. There is something relentless, almost unnerving in her anatomising of foibles, fears, obsessions, private shame, the nature of loneliness, the nature of panic.

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Marriages

Marriages cover

This collection of short stories brings together material written over a period of thirty years. Witting always 'found time' to write, regardless of the demands of a full-time career as a teacher, but she published little until she had retired. The short story is a form she preferred, defining it as 'ironic in tone and appealing to the intellect'; with careful control of plot and character Witting takes great pleasure in working within a brief, compressed form, particularly because, as she noted, it 'is like writing poetry'.

Witting is 'not afraid of strong stuff' and these brilliant stories cover a gamut of emotions and abuses. '[Marriages] has a bleakness, even an ugliness, that few of our writers have had the nerve to record', but it also contains one of Witting's most moving stories, 'Goodbye Ady, Goodbye Joe' – a rare love story in which an old couple face death as flood waters begin to rise around their lonely farmhouse.

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Beauty is the Straw

Beauty is the Straw cover

Les Murray pays tribute to Witting's second collection of poetry by stating that she is 'a talent we can confidently call major ... [and] an intelligent poet, fully the equal of the brightest anywhere ... The fact is proved not least by her never forgetting that a poem must also move us. A poet of reserve and a genuine independence of mind, she has been slow to attract attention, in part because she has not anxiously sought it. Discerning readers, however, have been amazed that so fine a poet could have been working unnoticed at such a level of achievement.'

Although now out of print, all the poems in this volume appear in Collected Poems 1998.

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A Change in the Lighting

Change in the Lighting cover

Witting returns to the theme of 'marriage' in this her third novel. Ella, a woman in her early fifties must face up to many issues when her husband suddenly leaves her for a much younger woman. Ella discovers that her life has been ruled by 'facades' and outworn conventions and that she has not confronted the reality of her relationship with both husband and children. Protected, she has 'seen no evil, heard no evil and spoken no evil'. Alone she must learn about the 'separate worlds' of the others in her family and the wider realities of life outside the confining house which has been her protection for so long. As well she must come to terms with the 'evil' within herself.

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In and Out the Window

In and Out the Window cover

This second collection takes in a number of Witting's short stories written many years ago, but also includes others written recently. These stories are wise and perceptive and as Peter Craven notes: 'there is a rich and powerful voice which can express, with very precise intimacy, the full emotional range: love, hate, the catastrophes and contentments of family life and the dialectics of inner struggle'.

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Collected Poems

Collected Poems cover

This collection brings together all the poems from Travel Diary and Beauty is the Straw, but includes an important new section – Interiors. Here, some of the 'dark' material in I for Isobel is maturely re-worked in the long poem 'Breakdown'; this is a document of near-madness and despair, and the 'long journey', made in the 'little space' of the mind that brings resolution. Inner demons are confronted and subdued and some comfort is taken from the tenuous but perennial beauty of the world.

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Maria's War

Maria's War cover

Witting's fourth novel is set in a retirement village, described by one resident as being 'not so bad. It is organised in circles, like Dante's Inferno ... I am in the second circle. I have a little bedsitter unit ... '. In the first circle the residents live independently, the third is 'complete room service ... The fourth circle is the nursing home. The fifth has no name and no place in the conversation.' This location, an 'ante-room' to death provides the setting for a friendship between the elegant Maria, and a woman of considerable spirit, Erica. Erica makes a journey of discovery as she listens to the stories told by Maria who is haunted by vivid memories of the dramatic events of her life during the war.

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Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop

Corner Shop cover

Winner of the 2000 Age Book of the Year Award, and Fiction Prize

This, Witting's fifth novel, is the long-awaited sequel to I for Isobel. Wary of sequels, Cameron Woodhead notes that: 'Witting – deft navigator of prose that she is – avoids ... particular perils, and many other excesses and deficiencies besides, presenting us with a worthy successor to the original'. Isobel's short-lived experiment with freedom and writing is turned awry by a long period in a TB sanatorium, where she learns a great deal about herself and the other desperate/fated inmates. Writing from personal experience of this terrifying environment, Witting's book 'brims with [her] trademark wisdom, compassion and humour. You read and weep and laugh, and wonder exactly how she manages to enchant the quotidian and imbue it with the majesty of the real.'

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Faces and Voices

Collected Stories

Faces & Voices cover

Amy Witting's stories are collected for the first time in one book. Faces and Voices provides a comprehensive record of her mastery of the short story form and spans nearly fifty years; the title, taken from the 1962 short story of the same name, aptly reflects what most concerns Witting – our endlessly fascinating lives (however simple) and the reflection in our faces, voices and manner of our journeying in an imperative inner world. Witting decided to try her hand at the short story when the demands of her career and household duties precluded novel writing. She notes in the introduction that: '[short story writing] is the bystander's genre. For me [it] is not a reaction to personal experience ... ideas for short stories are collectables, from the hands of others ...'. Reviewing the collection Peter Craven echoes what all Witting fans know: 'Amy Witting has a command of the short story form which equals that of the most celebrated international practitioners.'

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After Cynthia

 After Cynthia cover

After Cynthia, Witting's sixth and final novel, is set in the familiar environment of a school and focuses on the dynamics between a group of six spirited women teachers. Witting is at ease and, as ever, highly observant, and effortlessly able to capture the seemingly insignificant details that contribute to the dynamics of their relationships; as well, she captures the small comments which diffuse tension and bring grace. Echoing a number of earlier short stories and spiced with Witting's first-hand knowledge of student suicide, this novel is like the very best of her short stories – concise, sharply drawn and indicative of her real compassion for the trials of others.

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© Copyright Yvonne Miels 2008

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