Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Honest awakening

The Au Pair: A True Story
by Michele Macfarlane

(Jacana, R139.95)

Michele Macfarlane is a married mother of three living in Cape Town as this book opens. Happily partnered with Peter, a chiropodist, they lead a seemingly idyllic life. However, her eyesight is failing due to the onset of retinitis pigmentosa.

Macfarlane hires an au pair to help her care for the children and drive them around as she can no longer do so. Within a few pages Macfarlane is both celebrating her 37th birthday in her parents' luxury penthouse and suffering - and I use the word advisedly - the effects of her crush on her au pair, a woman of 23, Marizette.

Suffering, because Macfarlane believes herself to be straight: she is married, settled, her life following the ordinary, well-travelled paths of heterosexuality. There are niggling questions, of course. She was abused as a child, and can never quite rid herself of that "yucky" feeling she experiences when she's intimate with her husband, and there was that incident as a university student with the girlfriend of her brother, Ian? but these are just niggles. Or are they?

Macfarlane is surrounded by well-meaning close friends and members of her extended family, and sometimes supported as she tries to talk herself out of a crush on this much younger woman, who is in a relationship with a partner in any case.

Most of the book's chapters open with long e-mails written by Macfarlane to her close friend Sara, who lives in England with her own husband and family and is, ironically, also questioning her own sexuality and finding herself attracted to women.

The e-mails then set the scene for the actions that unfold in the main narrative.

The writing style is deceptively light, easy to read, set in the present tense, yet the story that unfolds is anything but light, nor is it easy. The events will impact on all those involved in the lives of these two women - family, friends, and of course Macfarlane's three children.

The book unflinchingly tells the story of the emotional rollercoaster of discovering that you're gay, and needing to leave a marriage to be true to yourself, and yet how living your own truth can be devastating to those around you, most especially Macfarlane's husband, Peter, who is initially broken and embittered through the process.

And yet, as Macfarlane makes clear, her gay orientation is not a choice, and not something that can be switched off, denied or ignored.

In one of her e-mails to Sara she discusses her attraction and the reasons for it: "The point is that nothing will stop me feeling the way I do about Marizette. I'm crazy about her.

"Of course I've asked myself over and over again how it's possible at such a relatively late stage in my life to discover I'm a lesbian.

"And I don't have an answer to that. There were many tell-tale signs? and again, I think: how could I not have known?"

And yet the toll taken on her family and her own sense of self-hood makes the guilt acute: "Sara, I feel like such a bad person. I've always liked myself and now I don't any more. I can't believe I'm hurting my children. All I ever wanted was for them to have a happy childhood."

Macfarlane is brave in many ways - for agonising over her choices, and ultimately choosing what will make her happy, a decision that embraces her new-found sexuality, a sexuality that has been denied or, suppressed, one that has left her unable to find satisfaction with men.

Brave, too, is Macfarlane's choosing to reveal so many intimate details of the lesbian sex between her and Marizette - descriptions which are quite graphic at times, and refreshingly so.

There's also a sense of fun here, and the scene in which the two buy a strap-on is infused with humour. Macfarlane is also unsparing in her depiction of the emotional difficulties each experience and the role of therapy in helping to diffuse some of these problems.

The Au Pair is a gripping, compellingly told story, and Macfarlane and her family are also brave enough to have the details of their lives thrown open within its pages.

Ultimately, too, there's a happy ending that you welcome as a reader, but what this book also makes clear is that even happily-ever-after requires some emotional work and rare understanding.

This is a necessary and welcome addition to the local landscape of memoir writing.

Published in The Star Tonight December 9 2010

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