A Remarkable Woman Book Review – Jules Van Mil’s Debut Novel is an Impressive Memory-Elevating Work of Historical Fiction

A Remarkable Woman is available now via Pan Macmillan

The power of storytelling is immense.

Fantasy and science-fiction tales can transport readers to worlds that don’t exist, to experience mystical events and encounter mysterious creatures that come from the darkest deeps of the minds eye. Elsewhere, biographies give readers a glimpse into the lives of leaders, celebrities, and unknown legends, helping make the most illustrious figures in society feel relatable, understood, or even condemned. We read to feel a wide array of emotions; romance novels helping us swoon and live vicariously through the characters, or a great Stephen King tome chills us to our core. We are moved, thrilled, entertained, and informed by the stories we read.

Stories can show that they’re not alone in the experiences that they’ve gone through in life. For some readers, a story might reflect their own lives and give a feeling of validation and acknowledgement that they exist.

A book is one of the best friends we can ever have. They occupy our lives for the hours on end, becoming close companions and leaving us feeling enriched for the journey we have been on together. While they may not be a cure for loneliness, they certainly can be a salve for the moments when we feel most alone.

This isn’t a traditional review of Jules Van Mil’s debut novel A Remarkable Woman. While I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative that Jules takes readers along, loving the echoes of iconic and much-loved novels like My Brilliant Career and The Dressmaker, I found myself enraptured and thrilled by the response that my elderly neighbour Cath* had to the book.

Over the past year, my partner and I have gotten to know our elderly neighbour more due to a series of events. Firstly, my cat Zac would go next door and sit with Cath and provide some company to her as she spent her day in relative solitude. Each day, her brother would visit, checking in on her and spending time with her. Outside of those hours, there would be the occasional visit from neighbours checking in, but otherwise, that was about it.

Mobility was an issue as Cath was in recovery from a fall she had in her home, but while visitors were limited, the wealth of books that she had with her during the day was immense. Cath had already devoured the Outlander series more than once over, and was craving something new, something exciting. On one of my visits to see how she was going and to chat with her about her life, I brought across A Remarkable Woman. Upon seeing the cover of a woman walking through a green field with a wide brimmed hat in her hand, Cath’s face lit up.

A Remarkable Woman tells the story of Avril Montdidier, a young Frenchwoman who travels from her home in Paris to Australia with the dream of creating her very own fashion business on her mind. Set in the 1950s, this epic tale pulls from the same strains that many great Australian novels have gone before, with Avril finding her way from Melbourne to a cattle station in Queensland. The varied locations leap off the page with Jules’ vivid descriptions of the landscape, each one feeling alive and vibrant (and no doubt will lead to a silver screen adaptation in the future).

In a post-war world, Avril navigates a her dreams and romantic desires, encountering a series of tragedies that she manages to overcome with her determination to never let them get the better of her. Within A Remarkable Woman, we see a proudly feminist story, one that challenges the notion of what a woman’s place was in the world of the 1950s.

I read A Remarkable Woman after Cath did, and had been able to anticipate the narrative beats that she had already relayed to me with excitement and immense detail. While Cath and Avril’s journey in life was quite different, the memories of Cath’s youth and her life came flooding back with alacrity. Over a cup of coffee, I heard about Cath’s life growing up in Kalgoorlie, getting to experience the hot summers and the cold nights. She talked about the giant gum trees that lined the streets, bringing a modicum of coolness when the sun became overwhelming. She pondered whether they still stood now, and how the Kalgoorlie that she grew up with would have changed over time.

It became clear in these moments that Cath’s memories hadn’t changed at all over time. They conjured themselves into existence in her mind, almost as if she were following the same steps right there and then. Her brother had let me know that her memory had been failing, and while I’m not qualified to make a judgement on whether that was the case or not, it quickly became clear to me that what Cath needed the most was some kind of connection, a bond or companionship that might make the lonely hours between visits feel shorter.

Cath talked about how in the weeks that she had the copy of A Remarkable Woman with her, she had read it multiple times, each time being drawn deeper into Avril’s story. She saw herself in the character, noting that she was someone who fought against the patriarchy and subverted societal norms that are expected of women. She loved reading about women who were strong, independent, and reinforced the notion that a woman’s place is not in the kitchen or folding laundry, but in the world, living out her hopes and dreams, and achieving what she wants to achieve.

Cath was inspired by the world of fashion, easily visualising the attire that Jules’ vibrant descriptions detailed. It’s clear that her years of working within the fashion industry itself creating bridal and evening wear and working as a teacher have given Jules a foundation of experience to pull from to write a novel that is well-informed and genuinely captivating. For fashion aficionados, this is a story that will draw you in immediately.

I wish I’d been able to give the copy of A Remarkable Woman back to Cath, who returned it to me so I could review it. Shortly after, she suffered from another fall, this time ending up in hospital for an extended period of time before being moved into an aged care facility. Due to COVID, we haven’t visited her yet, but when we do I’ll make sure to take my copy along for her to revisit when she wants to. While I hope that moving to an aged care facility means that she might gain some further social interaction and engagement with people, I’m also cognisant of the reality that a move into an aged care facility can further isolate elderly folks.

In the UK, there have been calls to implement reading groups for elderly folks to help push against isolation and loneliness and to encourage social interactions by reading-inspired conversations. In Australia, the reality of COVID has impacted the amount of visitors to aged care facilities, further enhancing isolation and loneliness within the facilities, but prior to the pandemic, there was a strong push to encourage social interactions in aged care facilities and battle against loneliness. For someone like Cath where dancing and movement may not be an option, a reading group might certainly be of benefit.

Discussions about Cath’s life had often focused on her falls, her isolation, her injuries, and neighbours being concerned about her. While these interactions were no doubt embarked upon with the best of intentions, with the concerned neighbour meaning well by what they said, they also amplified a sense of despair or impending concern that was already within Cath’s mind. In the short time that I got to know Cath and hear her life story, I had never seen her so excited and revitalised as I was when she was talking about A Remarkable Woman. She was no longer focusing on the present and the difficulties associated with it, but rather the past, and the aspects of her life that gave her hope, joy, and a sense of community. It made her smile and it made her dream. If a book can alleviate some stress or concern, then that in itself is a great and brilliant thing.

Copy provided by Pan Macmillan for review purposes.

*Name changed for this review.

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