Clara's Witch
Natalie Andrews
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Clara's Witch

Natalie Andrews
Fremantle Arts Center
272 pages
August 2004
rated 1 of 5 possible stars
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Clara’s Witch, the author’s first title, is a beach or coffee-break book. Not a long–distance-flight book. The short episodic style, contradictions, confusing mixture of past and present tenses, and bland narrative make this a book to be read when you don’t want to lose yourself, you don’t want time to fly past, you don’t want to be absorbed to the extent that time and space and what’s happening around you disappear. There are no end-of-chapter cliffhangers which impel you to read on. A very putdownable book.

The narrative swings between two themes. One is of hardship, misfortune, adversity, cruelty, suffering and serious illnesses, leading to cries from Clara that life is unfair and there’s something wrong with her. The other, of success, opportunity, travel, talent, and love, leads to Clara’s joy that she is happy, coveted by men, supported by friends, loved, great at what she does, and she can and does sing, act, and write. She feels life is unfair because she has not realized her childhood dream to become an opera singer.

Clara’s earliest memory is of her father’s belt lashing towards her at age two, and her endurance of the harsh realities of war, bombs and air raid shelters are the seeds of fear which flourish and bloom throughout her life. When she leaves Glasgow at age three for the country, though, her life becomes one where she is safe, loved and happy, though the war demons continue to haunt her, and she struggles through common childhood growing pains, such as feeling fear going outside in the dark to use the lavatory. What three-year-old wouldn’t? She enjoys the attentions of a doting father figure while enduring the strictness of the mother carer. Many families are like this. She becomes jealous when her big sister joins her new family, a feeling many children have lived through. Her first love is thwarted, and she feels the searing devastation which many fifteen-year-olds have. These traumas become ingrained and never forgotten. As she grows up, a series of horrific events attack her, and she becomes more and more immersed in her feelings of self-loathing.

Read this if your childhood was free from the harsh disciplines, poverty and alcoholism, which were a common feature of latter war years’ family life and are still global realities which know no bounds of discrimination. Read it if you are interested in knowing about what is considered abusive now, but was then the norm for many. Don’t read this if you lived or are living that childhood. You’ll be tempted to ask Clara if she wants cheese to go with that whine. Far better to read Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis and Angela’s Ashes or Dave Peltzer’s A Boy Called It and The Lost Child. These stories are eloquently and exuberantly told and highlight how strength of character enabled these victims to overcome tragedies worse than befell Clara.

Don’t read this if you are unemployed, educated and actively seeking work. You will want to ask Clara what her problem is as you see her sailing into and out of jobs as she travels around Australia, and your sympathies for her traumatic childhood may ebb faster than a receding tsunami.

Don’t read this if you are artistic and have devoted yourself to reaching your elusive goal, remaining positive in the face of adversity. You will wonder why Clara harps on bitterly about her unfulfilled dream to be an opera singer while she conveys the euphoria she feels, as she basks in the limelight, during her variety of singing, acting and PR careers.

Don’t read this if you are still living or lived a harsh life in Glasgow, which Clara was able to get away from by going to Australia at age ten. When she returns to Britain as an adult suffering through another low point of her life, the impending break up of her first marriage, she is joyful that she’s able to leave her birth country for a second time and go back to the land of opportunity. The Stockton sights of “…council houses with gaunt, aproned mothers ferociously puffing at fags and rocking babies in low doorways, desperate to catch a sunbeam peeping hopefully through the leaden clouds …. made (her) long for Australia with its wide open spaces and clean, clear air.” Unfortunately, her traumas have hidden her blessings from her.

Clara’s life has been dogged with vicious events; she is taunted, victimized, mentally and, physically abused, escapes full sexual abuse, and is treated cruelly and unfairly. This is real and horrific, and no one should have to endure it. However, the book fails to inspire and reach to the core of the readers’ sympathies because of the endless opportunities and blissful times which she laps up like the cat that got the cream.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Alison J. Macmillan, 2005

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