Paull, Emily. Well-Behaved Women. Margaret River: Margaret River Press, 2019. RRP $27.00. 242pp. ISBN: 9780648652113.
Where to begin? Emily Paull’s debut collection of short stories, Well-Behaved Women, is a sophisticated, thought-provoking, and challenging exploration of human relationships. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a book for women, about women; it’s a book for anyone and everyone. Each of the stories add value in the way they explore difference and individuality, and offer an engaging look at societal expectations.
From Green’s Pool to Margaret River, Perth Writers Week to the chilly winter waters of Floreat Beach, Paull puts WA firmly on the map in these stories, grounding the female characters who are so central to this book in situations, places and relationships that will be recognisable to many. What’s refreshing is that so many take place outside of the domestic space that women have become so synonymous with. Instead of being placed in the home we’re out at sea with a free diver, at music festival or on a bike riding through the streets of Perth.
This is an accomplished collection that challenges gender stereotypes and expectations without being arrogant or patronising. It’s a contemporary book and these are modern women within it. In ‘The Sea Also Waits’ a mother takes her son out with her when she goes free diving. She refuses to let the expectations of others restrict her:
‘Tell her,’ the lady demanded, turning to Shane, ‘that it’s dangerous.’
‘She knows it’s dangerous,’ replied the lifesaver. ‘That’s why she does it.’ (6)
The ‘lady’ has assumed that the mother and son were drowning when they began doing breathing exercises as preparation for a free dive. The fact that the lady addresses a male surf lifesaver symbolises the assumption that the free diver can be restricted and restrained by an authority figure. The lady assumes Shane is an authority figure in part because he is male and thinks he can control the female diver’s behaviour. This expectation explores the power balance between men and women in a subtle way, but fact that the diver continues to do what she’s doing subverts the assumption that she will submit to male authority.
One of the reasons this collection is so refreshing is that the female characters are not all good. There is none of the illusion of perfection that sometimes permeates the depictions of women in fiction. Instead their flaws are revealed through skilled writing, honesty and realism.
In ‘Nana’s House’ a bereaved girl invites a colleague home, knowing full well that he is keen to have a relationship with her. She leads him on and then instantly rebukes him, but is very aware of her own misdemeanours.
I can see that he is disappointed, but he pulls back to his own side of the couch on command, this time his hands folded in his lap … I feel like the meanest person alive. (125)
Yet she doesn’t offer him an apology. This is something that Paull plays with throughout the collection, challenging the assumption that men and women are inherently good or bad through detailed and clever characterisation. This unpacking of assumptions is also seen in ‘Pretending’, where a man is hurt by his new wife’s assessment of their relationship.
‘It doesn’t matter. Nobody thinks this marriage is going to last.’
He winced. ‘Nobody, Jaz?’
The way she said nothing held a note of judgement, of finality. (193)
‘The Settlement’ focuses on a woman in an emotionally abusive marriage, who begins to eat poorly and put on weight as a result of the unhappiness she feels in her relationship. On the surface is the suggestion that she is weak-willed and has let herself go, but in telling the story through her eyes, Paull opens up the suggestion that there are issues that bubble under the surface of what we perceive to be true about others.
I started taking to my bed during my days off, ironing on a little board across my lap and eating trays of Dairy Milk chocolate and bags of Doritos while I watched TV. I set an alarm for 4:30pm, and when it went off, I would get in the shower and wash away the evidence of my slovenliness, put on makeup, and pretend I was the well-adjusted wife he wanted. (202)
As well as being literal, the alarm is a symbolic wake-up call to the reader to understand the concessions that women make for men, and vice versa.
There is much more to be said about Well Behaved Women, but I would like to encourage you to explore these characters for yourself and take home the ideas that the pages reveal.
Well Behaved Women is a wake-up call to women and men everywhere to think more deeply about their relationships with each other and those around them, and to question and challenge the compromises that may not seem all that big, but in fact are life changing.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.