A review of Lola Bensky by Lily Brett

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Lola Bensky
by Lily Brett
26/09/2012, Paperback, 276 pages, RRP:$29.99, ISBN-13:9781926428475

The year is 1967, and young Lola Bensky has arrived in London to interview a series of famous rock stars for Australian magazine Rock-Out. The book opens with Lola and a very gentile Jimi Hendrix chatting about weight and hair curlers, and continues through a series of interviews with superstars like Mick Jagger, Twiggy, and Pete Townshend to name just a few.

There’s something rather compelling about Lola’s character. Perhaps it’s her wide-eyed innocence, which doesn’t seem to diminish as she gets older, or her weight-obsessed introspection, or her Woody Allen styled neurosis that later becomes a series of phobias. Or maybe it’s just the way she openly becomes absorbed with the most domestic aspects of her famous subject’s lives. They clearly think so too. Jimi Hendrix invites her over to his place to see him in his hair curlers. Mick Jagger offers her a cup of tea and later phones her to invite her over to meet Paul McCartney. Janice Joplin confides in Lola that she was a fat, pimply misfit as a teenager, and reassures her that she’s nowhere near as big as Mama Cass.

The story is told in several parts, moving through key timeframes in Lola’s life. It begins in London with Lola at nineteen. Then moves to New York the following year. The next section moves to Melbourne when Lola is married to “Mr Former Rock Star” and beginning to become seriously agoraphobic. Then we move forward in time to Lola at fifty-one, a successful author in New York with her second husband, “Mr Someone Else”. The following chapter goes back in time to Lola’s 20th year at the Monterey International Pop Festival, and the book ends with Lola in the New York City of the present – at sixty-three years of age.

Though Brett is adamant that the books she calls fiction are indeed fictional, she has also admitted that Lola Bensky follows her ‘real life’ experiences pretty closely, from the protagonists initials through to how she looks, and the interviews she conducted as a young journalist during the sixties. Reading the book you get the definite sensation that you’re experiencing a unique insight into rock stars like Hendrix, Cher, Mama Cass, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger. Hendrix, Cher, Joplin, and Jagger come across very well indeed – presenting a warm, thoughtful, and surprisingly sane image through the pages of this book. Jim Morrison and Pete Townsend in particular come across as odious: unpleasant, immature, and twisted. Reading Lola’s responses to these people, and her own sense of herself as a young Jew, and of course, as is always the case in Brett’s book, her sense of what it means to be the child of Holocaust survivors, is fascinating. That these famous people also respond to Lola’s experiences as much as she responds to theirs, adds to the power of this story.

But there is always something a little detached about Lola, even as she sweats through heavy makeup and tight fishnet stockings, panics about going outside, plans yet another diet, or worries about her parents dying. We never really get under her skin. She keeps the reader at arm’s length by telling us how she feels rather than showing us:

Lola felt bad. She couldn’t beleive Renia’s response to the news that she was leaving the man who, Lola thought, Renia had possibly, initially, hoped she would not marry. She really hoped that her mother wasn’t wishing she had died in Auschwitz. (130)

The result is an odd deadpan quality. However, it doesn’t hurt the novel. Instead Lola comes across as droll, peppering her slightly naive demeanour with rather intense and poetic observations about her parents’ pain:

For Renia, the future had changed. Overnight. It had spun on its axis and cracked and crazed adn fractured. It was split into pieces with fissures and chinks and splinters. Overnight, everything had changed. One minute Renia was a beautiful and studious teenager. The next minute she was, like all the other Jews of Lodz, a bedraggled prisoner, imprisoned in a universe bereft of sustenance of almost every sort. (166)

The same quiet, almost detached insights apply to her perception of the rock stars she meets. Lola isn’t dazzled or even excited by them. Instead she gives us a very down-to-earth picture of interviewees such as Brian Jones, who is so stoned that when she asks him whether he thinks the world is changing, he checks his pockets and indicates that he doesn’t have any spare change. Then he promptly nods out. She’s proud of Cher, even though she never gets back the rhinestone encrusted false eyelashes Cher borrowed. Lola wonders whether John Weider’s parents minded him being in a rock band. She argues with Mama Cass about who is fatter.

Overall, Lola Bensky is a funny, easy to read novel, which conceals its pithy story about healing and transformation in funky fashion, rock and roll gossip, and a great deal of verve.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: Lola Bensky by Lily Brett on Blogcritics.