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Book review

Ladies' Rest and Writing Room
by Kim Kelly

This slim novella (just over 120 pages) tells the story of two women who had been at school together and who meet up again as adults in totally different life circumstances - one as a socialite from a wealthy family, the other a shop attendant at the Farmer's department store. Daisy Bluebrook comes to the Ladies' Rest and Writing Room in the store to write undeliverable letters to her lover who didn't return from the First World War; Clarinda Littlemore is the shop assistant who tends to the needs of the ladies who use the room.

Set in the early 1920s, the story captures the feeling of the times - relief that the war is over, optimism for the future, the futility of war itself, the sense of needless loss. It also brings back a time when the words "department store" meant an establishment that provided for the social needs of shoppers as well as the clothes and foodstuffs required by everyday life. The stores tended to occupy complete city blocks and were owned by some very rich people. (The last reminder of those days is probably the Mark Foy's building which now houses the Downing Centre court complex. Mark Foy also built the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath as a place where his friends could relax.)

The Farmer's storefront in the 1920s.
From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales (Mitchell Library)

The book won the prestigious 20/40 Prize in 2023, and can be summed up well by the comments from the judging panel.

Why this book is different
Two young women, brought up to expect conventional lives, are thrown together in unexpected circumstances. Each has suffered a devastating loss that challenges their belief in life and themselves. It’s rare to come across a work of deep psychological insight conveyed with such verve and lightness of touch.

Why we liked it
Kelly sweeps the reader into the lives and passions of her two central characters and into the bustling city streets of Sydney in the 1920s. A powerfully moving book that sparkles with vitality.

The book is an enjoyable read and with its short length can easily be read in an afternoon, an afternoon that takes you back to the very different times and people of the 1920s. You can probably find a copy at the Oberon Library or you can buy a copy from Finlay Lloyd.

About the Author

Kim Kelly has a prodigious authorship of books to her name, and doubles as an editor for a book publisher. You can see all about her at her web site. She gave a talk about the book at the Oberon Library on Friday, March 22, 2024.

A version of this review was published on the Oberon Matters web site on April 4, 2024.

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