The balance between the seriousness of Rachel’s story coupled with the humorous farce taking place around her makes for an engaging and surprisingly thought-provoking read. As one would expect of a creative writing instructor, Waterhouse has created a tight, fast paced plot, with enough suspense points to keep the reader involved and interested throughout the book.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Carole Waterhouse
Dec 2001, pb, 301pgs
Rachel Weyant has real problems. Her English classes at a local prison, the only teaching job she can get, aren’t going so well, her husband has invited his crazy ex-wife Mad-Mad-Mad Madeleine and their wild daughter to live with them and her friend Annie keeps getting her into difficult and dangerous situations. Carole Waterhouse’s debut novel Without Wings follows Rachel as the certainties in her life begin to rapidly crumble. The book takes Rachel’s point of view, and while she certainly gets treated badly by almost everyone in her life, and plays the typical doormat role, her story never becomes too pathetic. This is partly accomplished by Waterhouse’s strong writing, which takes the reader under Rachel’s skin, and allows us to perceive her ongoing observations, detachment from herself and unerring sense of hope even as her entire world proves illusory. Despite her ongoing oppression and moments where she seems off balance, Rachel is believable, and a strong, sympathetic character – as he herself puts it, the straight man in the absurd comedy of her life. Her self-deprecation coupled with the way she never takes herself very seriously makes the reader identify with her:
“She tried to remember if there had been anything in her life, ever , that she had felt strongly about, The only thing that came to mind were the arguments she had with her father when she was five years old and believed, truly believed, still did even now, that he was wrong about telling her she wasn’t allowed to start a turtle farm like her friend Jane.” (124)
Next to her outgoing and adolescent-like friend Annie, who seems to use Rachel solely as a means for gaining a few minor thrills at Rachel’s expense, Rachel is an understated and deep character, whose desire to find something of meaning in her empty life is poignant.
Waterhouse creates a secondary narrative through the story written by the prisoner “Mitch,” a work-in-progress which Rachel agrees to look at. Although Mitch’s story is not a pleasant one, and it is highly coloured by Rachel’s fantasies, it also provides an interesting parallel to Rachel’s story. Both Mitch’s narrator and Rachel initially think of themselves as passive “victims of fate,” and at least in the early parts of Rachel’s story, don’t suspect that they are in control of the decisions which have created their stories. Both of them get into trouble through their desire to please someone else, and to project some kind of figure of themselves which has little to do with the actual character. Mitch’s narrator doesn’t have any scope for change though – he is trapped and simply peters out by the end of Without Wings while Rachel begins to understand something about her life and self.
Another thing which makes this story work so well is its humour, which provides a good counterbalance to Rachel’s serious pathos. Annie introduces her to Dennis, a man whose house is “gothic dragon” and who collects road construction cones, drives a fake hearse (“a real hearse was too expensive”) and who makes false teeth for a living. Her mother has moved in with a full scale cowboy complete with fake accent and quarter covered cowboy hat who plays the lottery for a living and Madeleine, who bursts into tears constantly and wears billowing outrageous colours produces exploding dumplings. The characters are hysterical and excessive, as are Rachel’s family, from her Aunty Amanda who keeps writing to her about relatives she doesn’t know and their physical complaints to her Aunt Didi who is trying to gain weight to attract her former husband back from the oversized model he ran away with. Well, as Rachel’s mother tells her, no one is perfect. Rachel’s pain however, is very real, and underneath the facades of control, zaniness and power, there is a sense that these are real people, with serious insecurities. This is part of Rachel’s journey as she begins to pull apart these stories while trying to find something hard and permanent in her own life.
Annie is simply more conservative than anyone else. The prisoners who once made her cry with their mocking become no more than “a bunch of worn men wearing the clothes of the dead.” (212) Mitch is simply a trapped loser, in no position to “promise anything.” George is a man whose whole life revolves around having a “perfectly-laundered crisp white handkerchief in his pocket.” (286) and Megan is simply a scared kid looking for a way out of her dysfunctional family: “The shadowed eyes, the tense of her muscles – all were signs of her first understanding that there are deeper pains than scraped knees and broken toys.” (288) Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz Rachel finds out that none of the wondrous people around her are as they appear – none of the situations real, and that she is the strong one, with what she needs “already there inside her.”
The balance between the seriousness of Rachel’s story coupled with the humorous farce taking place around her makes for an engaging and surprisingly thought-provoking read. As one would expect of a creative writing instructor, Waterhouse has created a tight, fast paced plot, with enough suspense points to keep the reader involved and interested throughout the book. Rachel’s journey is one which, despite the often silly scenerios she becomes involved in, will probably strike a chord in most readers. It is the characterisation which drives this novel though, with enough balance so that even the bad guys seem sad and understandable n their own way once their appearance of strength is stripped away, and in the end, everyone is powerless. Everyone except Rachel, who, finally rid of the life she has been living – homeless, friendless and husbandless, perhaps finds some kind of way out of the morass.
For more information on Without Wings visit: Without Wings