Flyleaf by Finuala Dowling
Penguin South Africa, 2007
Reviewer: Sheenadevi Goddard (NMMU English Studies)
Flyleaf is an easy read, particularly if you are an academic who is coerced to deal with quality assurance and “throughput” of students. It is the story of Violet, a lecturer of English, recently separated from her husband, and relocated to live with a friend, Marina. Violet’s husband, Frank, fuelled by testosterone and a (super) ego, suggests there is no reason why she should leave him, after all, a ménage a trois between husband, wife and lover was quite possible. Violet lets the “bleakness of her life wash over her” when, on the first night away, she feels sand at the end of Marina’s unchanged bed sheets. The question “what will become of me” is the momentum for the story.
She supports herself by teaching at a satellite campus of United College, teaching the “young and materially privileged”, and supplements this meagre income with manual writing for Adult Literacy classes. Violet’s reasons for filing for her divorce are quite refreshing. She says to the judge: “Your honour, my husband has a huge personality; his ego took up all the room in the house. I found myself getting smaller and smaller till I nearly disappeared”. In her subsequent search for identity and self-sufficiency, she finds herself as thrown as her students by the jargonized world of modern academia and materials development (or materials cartoonist, as Marina has it). Phrases such as “like autochthonous notions of identity or the imbrication of …” leave both her and her students flawed, and all this for “adequate throughput”.
Significantly, in trying to establish herself, she drops her PhD dissertation, which is entitled: “Windows and Doors in Virginia Woolf”. By her own admission she has registered only because she “coveted the illustrious qualifications that followed the names of [her] professors”. For Violet the windows and doors Woolf uses become “doors you can step from full of hope in the morning of your life and windows you can jump from in the evening when hope is done”.
For me the novel serves as something of a signpost for SA academia in the 21st century, where small colleges burgeon everywhere, all apparently offering “excellence”, and the traditional university is lost in the flurry corporate-speak. The building Violet works in is no ivy-league replica, but a nondescript city centre building with a staff room all share. She thinks wistfully of her supervisor’s office with its juliette balcony. As if this downgrading were not enough, she earns a mere R130 per hour as an English lecturer, in contrast to Liam, the law lecturer’s R260 per hour. Some courses, says the principal, are more competitive.
So eventually Violet accepts her friend’s offer to help open a bookshop. Marina, not working, has read countless flyleaves from the books on her late, rich father’s shelves. At least this small passion for reading is ignited within her, and the bookshop is born.
If Violet can leave academia for the pleasures of a bookstore, the average academic in SA is not in so fortunate a position, and must instead contend with the locked doors, low salaries and murky windows, replete with their “imbrications”. If Violet finds an “autochthonous” identity (the word means “to spring from the soil”) in her bookshop, we lesser beings left behind our desks must still seek ours.
One final remark on the title: it comes from the flyleaves of book covers on which comments have been inscribed by others. However, should I wish to have this particular flyleaf inscribed it would not be possible. By the time I reached page 4 a whole chunk of pages had decided to “fly-leaf” themselves and, glueless, fell apart in what might be construed a postmodern play on words, or is that leaves? The resultant gaps in meaning are not to be attributed to the author, but rather to Jacaranda Printers in Pretoria, whose inexplicable urge to enter the postmodern debate may best be served by a new consignment of glue.
Last Modified: Fri, 31 Mar 2017 12:00:58 SAST