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Editorial Reviews

Madeleine St. John’s witty, sprightly comedy of manners, set in Sydney in the late 1950’s, is propelled by the buoyant and effervescent performance of narrator Deidre Rubenstein, who is more than up to the task in portraying Fay, Lisa, and Patty, the novel’s three central characters - all employees of Goode’s department store - united by their jaded outlook on the opposite sex and the unexpected twists and turns their personal and professional lives undergo during the whirlwind Christmas shopping season in this light-hearted and diverting audiobook.

Publisher's Summary

From the Booker-shortlisted-author of The Essence of the Thing comes a great novel, a lost Australian classic. Written by a superb novelist of contemporary manners, The Women in Black is a fairy tale which illuminates the extraordinariness of ordinary lives.

The women in black are run off their feet, what with the Christmas rush and the summer sales that follow. But it's Sydney in the 1950s, and there's still just enough time left on a hot and frantic day to dream and scheme... By the time the last marked-down frock has been sold, most of the staff of the Ladies' Cocktail section at F. G. Goode's have been launched into slightly different careers.

With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St. John conjures a vanished summer of innocence.

©1994 Madeleine St.John (P)2009 Bolinda

Critic Reviews

A little gem...shot through with old-fashioned innocence and sly humour." ( Vogue)
"A highly sophisticated work, full of funny, sharp and subtle observations...a small masterpiece." ( Sunday Times, London)

What listeners say about The Women in Black

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Delightful

Excellent comedy of manners in the Jane Austen style. Captures the Australian attitude or feelings towards the novel "Continentals" as the latter's ways are absorbed into Australian life in the 1950s and 60s.

1 person found this helpful

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Love this

Although set before my time, I can relate to the people, the places and the world of this book. As someone who was born and raised in Sydney, the voices and places resonate and seem like old friends, in an odd sort of way. All in all, this book is a special treat.

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  • Millamant
  • 27-04-2010

A Slice of Literary Sunshine

When Text Publishing recently re-released Madeleine St John's The Women in Black, I was thrilled. My copy of the original edition, published in the early 1990s, was borrowed by someone who enjoyed it so much she never troubled to return it, and I was always extremely annoyed, because it is a truly marvellous novel that deserves to be recommended to a wide audience as a minor Australian classic.

The story covers six weeks in the lives of a group of women who work in a thinly fictionalised version of Sydney's flagship David Jones store in the 1950s. Each is at a different watershed in her life. Lisa (her name is really Lesley, but Lisa is more romantic) is a schoolgirl waiting for her matriculation results. Faye is a burnt out party girl, always falling for Mr Wrong, and seeing her chances of settling down with Mr Right fading rapidly as she moves into her thirties. Patty is trapped in a boring marriage with a drongo, with whom she shares little but a desperate desire for children who have never come. And in the midst of everything is Magda, the exotic Slovenian 'New Australian', who rules over Model Gowns like a benevolent despot, and who manages to be fairy godmother while scheming like Machiavelli behind the scenes.

It is hard to underestimate the charm of The Women in Black. On the one hand it is an intelligent feel-good novel, but it was written by a uniquely talented stylist, and manages to be far more than that. It is one of those rare books that can be recommended to practically anyone; so elegantly written, so wryly observed, and so beautifully peopled with thoroughly believable characters that it bears repeated re-readings. As an evocation of a particular moment in Australian history, it is hardly to be excelled. The audio performance was thoroughly enjoyable, even by somebody who has read the book as many times as I have. Please, give this slice of literary sunshine a go. It is hard to imagine being disappointed.


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  • Jane
  • 23-02-2013

Read with a melodius and versatile voice

This is the sort of book that can be described as a 'little gem'. It's about the women in the black clothes that were de rigueur for sales staff in the department stores for the wealthy in the 1950s.

Temporary assistant Lesley ('I want to be called Lisa') nervously awaiting her Leaving results, arrives and becomes part of the dress section. All her workmates have their stories, life styles so far apart from their monied customers. There is an interweaving of support and care among some of the women, while others are detached and present their work-face only.

Some of the lives are pleasingly resolved through moving into paths of what will 'surely be' love and security -- and the author, St John, gently determines that these paths should support their individual hopes and dreams.

The reader, Diedre Rubinstein, has a melodious and versatile voice and delightfully acts out all these endearing characters.

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  • RueRue
  • 17-05-2020

Delightful

A delightful little book ! The characters are just wonderful, especially Magda. There is an retro quality to the story, with its setting in an exclusive women's clothing department of a fancy store. It was perfect escapism for me in the midst of the COVID shutdown. The narration by Deidre Rubenstein was fantastic, too. She gave each character a distinctive voice, and her reading of Magda was so fun !

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  • Kindle Customer
  • 14-11-2020

A Delightful Novel of a Bygone Era

Set in the Ladies Cocktail department of a Sydney department store in the 1950s, this unassuming, dryly witty, comedy of manners calls up the BBC classic sitcom, "Are You Being Served". It's a pleasant, short, uncomplicated read (in this case, listen) with an interesting cast of characters. The word pictures drawn by the author make both the places and the people come alive. It just makes me want to have lunch with Magda and go dress shopping ! Nicely narrated.

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  • Nora Frado
  • 08-11-2020

Fun !

This was a good escape from the current climate! Thoroughly enjoy this book. Deidre Rubenstein did a wonderful job.

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  • Deanne Gibbs
  • 27-06-2020

Australia in the 1950’s comes to life

Loved the story. Felt I lived in Australia through the character’s lives and dreams. Disappointed in the ending . “Don’t stop now!” Looking for the other books by Madeleine St. John.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 19-04-2020

A great beach read

The reader will enjoy following the progress of these women as they pick and stumble their way through one frantic Christmas retail season and are forever changed

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  • TiffanyD
  • 26-03-2020

Cotton Candy

If you are a lover of books like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, this must be your next listen. Charming, funny, light, with just the tiniest bit of weight provided by the hint of social issues that women were dealing with in an Australia post WWII but pre-1960s. This will definitely be a book I turn to again in trying times when I need a little pick me up.

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  • DartmoorDiva
  • 18-04-2020

Charming, if brief

I have not heard of this author before, but the book was recommended to me. I enjoyed it as a light and entertaining piece. I thought the narrator was excellent. I’m not entirely clear why this is regarded as such a masterpiece, but it was fun and an interesting period piece .

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  • bucksdaisy
  • 29-09-2018

No depth!

Could have read this novel as a short story in a women's mag....little depth or substance. It felt contrived and sime bits a bit pretentious. so much for the author rebelling against the system and her upbringing.I do not understand the reviews that we so keen on it.

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