The formerly beautiful, still wealthy and powerful Elizabeth Hunter lies dying in her Sydney mansion. She receives around-the-clock care from three devoted nurses and is doted upon by her cook and her solicitor. As ruthless as she has been in her life, Elizabeth still commands the admiration and respect of those about her. She even has the grudging esteem of her children, both of whom fly in from abroad to share their mother’s final days and, incidentally, her estate. The novel relates the story of Elizabeth’s life by juxtaposing the present to her own memories of the past. Along the way, the narrative also reveals details about each of the other main characters. How these lives connect makes for an intricately textured fiction.
Elizabeth has always had a voracious appetite for life, one she continues to cultivate even as she lies infirm in bed. Her life, as she recalls it, has been filled to the brim with beautiful clothes and jewelry, fine food, and elegant surroundings, yet she has always been greedy for more. Elizabeth craves sensual gratification of every kind: “I shan’t feel happy till I’ve tasted everything there is to taste and l don’t intend to refuse what is unpleasant-that is experience of another kind.” She also has a formidable will to survive, which is what keeps her alive during the course of the novel, and which she uses throughout her career to dominate others.
Elizabeth’s children accuse her of having been selfish and of having withheld love from them; Elizabeth herself recalls with remorse how she hurt her adoring husband by her numerous affairs. Still, Elizabeth has some redeeming qualities: Intuitive and insightful, she often startles people with her un canny perceptions of them and what they are thinking. Toward the end of her days, she generously bestows jewels and money on those who attend her. She becomes more humane, striving to understand others and to detect a pattern to her own life. Such generosity of spirit arises out of the central episode in Elizabeth’s life: her humbling experience as lonely witness to a tropical storm.
The details about Elizabeth’s life are revealed gradually. Sometimes a remark from one of her children or a nurse will trigger a memory in her; often she becomes confused and wavers between memories, dreams, and reality. Eventually, she touches upon the important moments in her long, eventful life, beginning with her childhood and progressing through her marriage to Alfred Hunter, her becoming a mother to Basil and Dorothy, her separation from her husband, her discovery that she loves him even while attending to his slow, painful death by cancer, and her retirement in Sydney. She recalls the experiences of a lifetime and presents them in retrospect, continually examining them in the light of the present and in terms of her transforming experience in the eye of the storm. All of her memories gradually build to this most significant moment in her life: Left alone on Brumby Island, she emerges unscathed from an encounter with the still center of a hurricane, having learned much about herself and her place in the scheme of things.
The novel also documents the lives of those who care for the grand old dame. Lotte Lippmann, her German-Jewish cook who carries the guilty burden of having escaped the ovens at Auschwitz, is keenly devoted to her demanding employer and sometimes dances cabaret-style in order to entertain her. Mary de Santis, the quiet, introspective night nurse, reveres Elizabeth Hunter for her wit and wisdom. Mary deliberately seeks out Sir Basil Hunter in order to protest his and his...
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sister Dorothy the Princesse de Lascabanes’s plan to have their mother committed to an old-age home. Flora Manhood, the pretty young nurse who specializes in applying Elizabeth’s makeup, both resents and admires her difficult patient. Bored with her boyfriend, Flora seduces Basil in the hope of becoming pregnant with a Hunter grandchild and cashing in on some financial support. Dull, faithful Arnold Wyburd continues to visit his client and former lover Elizabeth as both longtime friend and legal adviser. Despite her declining physical condition, Elizabeth can still embarrass Arnold by occasionally alluding to their one brief indiscretion of years before.
Dorothy and Basil also come in for much attention. Both resent their mother’s lack of love for them and both eagerly await her death, Dorothy because she lives in genteel poverty, having separated from her wealthy French husband, and Basil because he wants to stage some new plays in order to restore his reputation and self-esteem as an actor. Dorothy is childless, frigid, and disdainful of Australian society; Basil is egotistical, impotent, and lacking in self-respect. Brother and sister dislike each other but plot together in order to place their mother in the Thorogood Village and thus hasten her end. As usual, though, the old lady has her own plans: She foils them all by willing her own demise.