It’s 1967. London is swinging and California is dreaming as some of history’s most formidable music artists take to the world stage. Overweight high-school drop-out Lola Bensky has every 19 year old’s dream job as a journalist for Rock-Out magazine. She leaves her anxious Jewish immigrant parents in Melbourne and heads overseas to chat with the likes of Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and Cher. As she quizzes them about their lives, she develops a deeper understanding of her own unique upbringing as the child of holocaust survivors.
The Lola we meet in the ‘60s is a jumble of wide-eyed naivety and world-weary nonchalance – a typically complicated young adult. She is largely unintimidated by the celebrities she meets, yet extremely self-conscious about her weight; she’s shocked by the drug taking and free love culture of the music industry, and yet is numb to the stories she hears over and over of horrific violence experienced by her relatives in 1940s Poland. Lola is the world of the baby boomer generation personified: defined at once by flower power and the legacies of a heinous world war. Lola Bensky follows this curious protagonist as she moves through marriage, motherhood and maturity towards a new career as a writer of detective fiction. Although there are many themes at work, the overall journey is about self-discovery and self-actualisation; about who we are (or choose to be?) when we are not defined by our parents, our careers or our appearance.
Lola Bensky is a work of fiction but it draws heavily on Lily Brett’s own life which includes immigrating to Melbourne in 1948 and writing for Go-Set – Australia’s first music magazine – before going on to be an acclaimed essayist and novelist. It is hard to know where fact ends and poetic licence begins in Lola’s celebrity encounters, but as a reader I long for some of it to be true. I really hope there were 19 year old Australian journalists in London discussing hair curlers with Jimi Hendrix and helping Barry Gibb pick out suits on Carnaby Street, as Lola does. I hope they were able to go to New York and watch Linda Eastman (later McCartney) get dumped by Jim Morrison and prop up a passed-out Brian Jones at the Monterey Pop Festival. Those are some pretty cool anecdotes right there.
Beyond the insightful descriptions of these colourful characters though, many of Lola’s interviews soon turn to the topic of her own life, particularly the heavy influence of her parents. I read these interactions as dream-like sequences, or as stories told with the tainted perspective of biased memory; stories infused by the teenage assuredness of one’s position at the centre of the universe. These are the kind of stories one would tell when describing a dream to a therapist (“So, I’m interviewing Mick Jagger when suddenly I realise we’re talking about the holocaust…”). As the novel develops, Lola begins to realise that her penchant for asking questions, as reflected in journalism and detective novels, has a lot to do with her questions about herself. When she asks Jimi Hendrix “Were you a happy child?”, for example, she opens the door for discussion of her own parents who were “…on another planet” – a state of being as destructive, it seems, as the turbulent, fractured family in which Hendrix grew up.
This ‘other planet’ is the second world war and the horrendous crimes experienced and witnessed by Jews living in prison camps under the Nazi regime. The graphic stories from this period brought to mind the phrase ‘a fate worse than death’, which gets used too flippantly a lot of the time. The torture, humiliation, experimentation and starvation experienced by these people go beyond most adjectives to describe bad experiences – I really have no words. The added significance for Lola, and others of her generation, is that these events have made it difficult for survivors to be dedicated parents. “The space that most parents had available for their children’s current lives was taken up by the past. Lola could see it in her mother. Her mother couldn’t hear her.” Lola looks around at her wedding and notes how many people in her parents’ community are survivors of death camps and labour camps. “Their children were survivors of their parents”.
One of the most interesting facets of this survival journey circles around Lola’s weight. Lola has been raised by a mother who is obsessed by thinness. She is relentless in her harassment and put-downs, regularly telling Lola that no man will ever want a fat girl and policing her food. As a survivor of genuine starvation it might seem illogical that a mother would want to stop her daughter from eating, but to Lola’s mother, Renia, weight gain is a sign of malevolence. In a prison camp, the only people who are not underweight are the enemy – the traitors who sneak food, or the officers who indulge while their prisoners suffer. This dark perspective on body image is neatly juxtaposed against the people Lola encounters professionally, like Twiggy, Cher and Mama Cass, who are used by the media to publicly define the fashionable and desirable female body.
Celebrity indulgences, like aspiring to thinness, wasteful spending and self-destructive behaviour, are ludicrous in the light of the horrors of war. A critic calling Mick Jagger’s gyrating dance moves ‘depraved’ clearly has little understanding of truly immoral activities. Jim Morrison stands out for me as the best example of a self-centred wanker (sorry, can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe him) although it’s clear that he, too, is a product of his upbringing and the industry he aspires to conquer. It is hard to comprehend his freedom to prattle on in a dozy haze about his spirituality (having absorbed the soul of a Native American whose death he witnessed, apparently) when others were subjected to torture because of their beliefs. Lola spends her life flailing about in the shadow of death, while rock legends’ lives end prematurely, often thanks to their own excessive lifestyles.
Lola Bensky is clever, funny and moving. The slippery narrative had me lurching from envy to repulsion and back again, taking the journey between the past and the present with Lola as a likeable, straight-talking tour guide. As the quirky Lola chats to her subjects, wrenching down her mini skirt and fussing with false lashes, she inadvertently questions the ways in which we view history, the people we hold up as heroes and the nature of being a child and a parent.
Lola Bensky is published by Penguin and I thank them kindly for my copy.
This review forms part of my reading for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.