The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age by Jane Shilling

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The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age by Jane Shilling

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: A beautifully written, perceptive dissection of what it is to be a middle-aged woman today. Not for the fainthearted.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701181000

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Middle-aged women disappear. They are not seen on television, their lives do not appear in newspapers, the legions of novels that are written each year rarely feature them. At least, that is what the author Jane Shilling believes as she wakes up aged 47 to find the narrative of her contemporaries and their lives which she has been reading about and living in parallel with since leaving university has vanished. She looks in the mirror and sees a face she does not recognise. Even with a punishing regime of early bed, no alcohol and litres of water, it refuses to regain its youthful bloom. So she decides to take a magnifying glass to this particular moment in time, this journey between youth and old age.

She does this by mingling her personal story with an admirable range of works of literature. Colette is here, with Chéri, The Last of Chéri and her memoirs. Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Nancy Mitford, Diana Athill (the modern chronicler of old age), Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, Gloria Steinem, Trollope, Henry James, Marguerite Duras, Beatrix Potter. They rub shoulders with hearty menopause manuals containing recommendations of HRT and wild yam. Shilling drops in references with a lightness of touch and knowledge of the works that makes one want to rush to the bookshelves for similar inspiration.

However, it is her own story that makes this book so compelling. She is a single mother of a teenage boy, living in a small house in Greenwich and working as a columnist for a national newspaper. She has had a normal English middle-class upbringing with parents and grandparents and teen rebellion. So far, so unremarkable. What is remarkable is the way that she writes about her life. She is articulate, literate and exact as she describes events and emotions. For instance, she took up riding horses in her late 30s and finds the process harder than she imagined: To have the fragility of my composure so exposed felt like having my personality pried open and its crevices probed with sharp instruments. I felt like a soft-boiled egg, a dissected frog, a jellied blob of sea anemone pecked by the cruel beaks of seabirds.

She has written about her riding and hunting in another book, but she is equally sharp-eyed about ageing. She dresses for a work interview in what she believes to be an intriguing mixture of modern and vintage only to find herself feeling shabby in contrast with the women at the newspaper. Her description of having botox for a before-and-after article is funny and sad. The range of emotions that she describes when she wonders momentarily whether she is pregnant again is beautifully truthful. But perhaps my favourite chapters are the ones dealing with her son growing up. He begins to burst out of their house: he filled rooms just by sitting in them – and she finds that his quiet indifference to everything she asks of him infuriates her. Days and weeks passed in which every word I uttered turned into a complaint. Angry reproaches fell from my lips like the toads and serpents from the mouth of the wicked sister in the Grimms’ fairy tale. For this middle-aged single mother that is oh-so-very recognisable.

There is anger and bleakness in Shilling’s view of the world. She finds this in a newspaper: Her bosom is not what it was – these days no more pneumatic than a couple of bicycle tyres… With her butch upper arms, long hair and wing-three-quarters legs… she is the siren of lost ideals fading youth, an Orpheus for a generation that still doesn’t want to grow up. This is a description of Madonna, who has the effrontery to sing and dance in public beyond her first youth. Shilling is bewildered by what has happened and where her life has vanished. As the book progresses, and she faces the reality of her age and her precarious lifestyle, panic begins to set in.

This is not a book to read if you are feeling, well, middle-aged and a little bit low. I had the impression that depression was often just around the corner for this writer. However, the writing is sometimes exquisite, and the descriptions frighteningly accurate. It is honest and funny, clever and poetic and I would urge anyone who is interested in the human condition in today’s Britain to read it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill and The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. You might also appreciate To Bed On Thursdays by Jenny Selby-Green and The Smile on the Face of the Pig: Confessions of the Last Cub Reporter by John Bull.

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