Olive Senior’s ‘Dancing Lessons’: Review
22 December 2011 No Comments
a novel by Olive Senior
By Anya Wassenberg
In Dancing Lessons, Jamaican-Canadian author Olive Senior gives us the story of G, a remarkable character whose story unfolds in the form of a series of meandering notebook entries.
The story ranges from the present day, where she’s an old lady stuck in a posh retirement home, and back and forth to various periods in her life. She runs away from a cold and affectionless childhood raised by her father’s sister and mother straight into the arms of a charming womanizer and a loveless and abusive marriage. The eldest daughter leaves to be raised by a rich white couple, and the womanizing husband simply moves out one day. She’s left with three children to raise on her own in the country, children who gradually drift away from her both emotionally and physically. Her experiences have left her guarded, with a sense of unfairness over her fate.
It was as if I was always two people. The one who was visible: plain, awkward, and shy. And the other inside my head: well-dressed, fashionable, and in command.
The genius of the novel is that we see both sides of G clearly by the end of the book through the flux of present day occurrences and remembered scenes. To the outside world, she’s paralyzed by an acute shyness, her very voice squashed by the unenviable life of poverty and emotional neglect. On the inside, however, she’s just as acutely observant, an intelligent and resilient survivor who’s learned to keep her head down and do what it takes to get by. We can also sense the emotional damage, the fragile psyche that hides underneath her resolve to carry on.
G’s voice is infused with a wry and understated sense of humour that often comes out in her observations of the other residents of Ellesmere Lodge.
Ruby was an impressive if incongruous sight in the garden, the gold chains around her freckled and wattled neck glinting through the V-neck of her cream silk blouse with the billowy sleeves, her wrists and fingers flashing with jewellery, her fake fingernails long and ruby red, her stork-like legs emerging from her too-short linen skirt to totter on the heels.
As she ruminates over the past, she’s forced to realize that her own children in turn have paid the price for her often prickly and uncommunicative nature. Grinding poverty and anger over her fate spill out, along with a blind jealousy at the realization that her children have drifted away from her and back in contact with their father, who went on to make a good living and live a prosperous life. She feels the separation with Celia, her daughter, and doesn’t know what to do about it.
I couldn’t help thinking, and not for the first time, how animated she seemed when we were with other people, how lacklustre with me, as if I was always the pinprick that deflated her.
She begins hostile to the upscale home Celia is paying for, keeping herself apart from the rich clientele who she imagines look down on her, but a funny thing begins to happen as time passes and she starts to open up. It’s not a steady road uphill but despite the bleakness of much of her past, G’s is a story about hope, about the ties that bind no matter what and a kind of redemption for which it’s never too late.
Olive Senior’s novel is beautifully written in a voice that is itself keenly observant of social strata and background politics. The book is much like G herself – shrewd, telling and likeable.