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Lioness by Emily Perkins (Image: Archi Banal)
Lioness by Emily Perkins (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJuly 30, 2023

What happens when middle-aged women start dancing? A review of Lioness

Lioness by Emily Perkins (Image: Archi Banal)
Lioness by Emily Perkins (Image: Archi Banal)

Claire Mabey reviews the new novel from Emily Perkins.

Ever since Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the word “of” has taken on an indelibly sinister dimension. Offred is the handmaid’s name while she’s in Gilead, meaning she is Of Fred, meaning she is one of his array of properties designed to furnish the distinguished man’s life with attributes that he can’t manage all on his own. 

Late in Emily Perkins’ Lioness, the main character, Therese Thorne, considers: “The personal touch had been key to our early success: young entrepreneur with her successful older husband, being a good sport on the yacht. Whether Trevor was there or not, I existed in relationship to him. Sun, moon. Oat, sapling. Wife. Of. Had I started the company on my own, no one would have taken any notice. Even my lucky looks, enough to jailbreak me from my childhood, would not have drawn attention without him.”

It’s a startling moment among many. My copy of Lioness is littered with reverse dog ears (I turn the corners up at the bottom of the page to mark lines and scenes that give me pause). Perkins’ troubling realism is a world away from the physically violent dystopia of Atwood’s, but the two stories share plenty of concerns. What happens when other people, structures and cultures intrude on a life to the point of enmeshing; and what happens when you start to see that your trajectory, what you think and do, and how, is shaped by forces that you haven’t, for the longest time, considered worthy of interrogation.

These questions bubble and froth at the centre of a novel which is fuelled by the lives of middle-aged women. This is Perkins’ first novel in eleven years (following The Forrests, published in 2012) and it feels like this book could only have been written now, both in the sense of the author’s own stage in life, but also the world’s. It is masterful in the way it confronts the concept of choice, both big and small.

Set in New Zealand in the years directly preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, Lioness hones in on the well-padded domestic life of Therese Thorn and steadily upsets it. We first meet Therese in bed having sex with her big-shot property developer husband, Trevor. It’s a terrific opening, to be so immediately plunged into the whirlwind of intimacy and the signposts of a complex struggle that mark the story from here on in. 

From those first, close pages we understand that Therese is a person who arranges herself for others: “As was my habit, I had got out of bed before he woke, to clean my teeth.” We also learn that she was the first in her family to go to university, that she is Trevor’s second wife, that they’re on a reconnaissance trip to Sydney to score an investor for the first Australian branch of Theresa’s self-titled homeware store, and that Therese suspects the realtor she meets wouldn’t have taken her seriously had it not been for the fact that she carries her husband’s last name.

The naming of things is important in Lioness. Before she was Therese Thorn, she was Teresa Holder. And while she was Teresa Holder she was in a family where people called each other “dumb bitch” or “stupid bitch”. We learn nothing more about the Holders: Therese’s life before Trevor is left largely uncoloured. But this is carefully done. The absence of personal history makes the handful of chinks that do appear in the armour of “Therese” all the more impactful.

There’s a particularly feverish scene where Therese visits her oft-mentioned but never seen childhood best friend’s home and we learn why the pair are estranged. It is bruising, and the information gleaned turns Therese towards another light, one you have to meet with empathy. The echo of “dumb bitch” stayed with me long after I finished the novel. It’s a phrase I used to hear. To see it on the page, spoken aloud by my internal reading voice like a bad echo, was confronting. What does language like that do to a child, girl, woman? What do words like that do once they’re in you, free to do their secret, bad work?

It just so happened that the book I started after finishing Lioness was Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. Early in the (hilarious, rageful) novel comes this passage: “Bitch just had a ring to it, that condemning, inescapable, ring, a ring that fucker or asshole could never fully conjure for a man. Bitch was flat and sharp and final. She thought of a bored, small-town bureaucrat in a shabby little office with orange carpet and flickering fluorescent bulbs stamping official yet pointless documents with clicking, metal thuds. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

Nightbitch is a critique of the hollow promises of bougie, middle-class, wellness-tinged culture and a reclaiming of something much more feral. Lioness operates along a complementary trajectory. Therese is a queen of comfort, of the idea that everyone deserves “pretty things”. She embodies the aesthetic in her life through persistent people-pleasing and by suppressing her scummier, bitchier urges like scoffing cheap pies and thinking things like: “I wanted to climb over the table and grab Guy by the face and push him down through its shiny black surface, plunging into the zone, to fight him there.”

Therese’s masks begin to morph, even fall a little, when she allows herself to be drawn in by her charismatic downstairs neighbour, Claire, who is many things in Lioness but who I came to think of primarily as a kind of Circe, the famous witch of Greek mythology, often flanked by lionesses (Claire has actual lioness statues in her apartment) and powerful enough to turn men into pigs.

About a third of the way through the novel is the only chapter dedicated to Claire’s point of view. In that handful of pages we are with Claire as she experiences a night of ecstatic freedom. She walks, runs, skips through the bush on the outskirts of the city, alone, and unafraid. A state that is poignantly drawn: showing how much potential violence there is for women to be afraid of, even in broad daylight. As she revels solo through the night, Claire contemplates the relationship between women and nature, and while damning the simplicity of that binary she experiences an embodied energy that is generated, in Claire’s eyes, by the land below and the planets above. 

It’s Claire’s tenuous burst of inspiration that draws Therese in and enables transformation to travel by contagion: Therese’s iron poise falters when she allows “Claire to enter”. In the way that Circe’s island is a fecund space for witchcraft, Claire’s apartment becomes a space for attempts at metamorphosis.

“The Zone” is what Claire and Therese strive for. With the stuff of domestic comfort cleared, and a stage set and the music on, they dance to try and elevate the body and the self into another state altogether. I felt uncomfortable reading these scenes, and with the idea itself: simply because I’ve wanted that from time to time too. And increasingly. We all miss dancing, my friends and I. As youths of the early 2000s we reminisce about dancing all night, several nights a week. Now we’re old and tired and parents of young kids and dogs, and we’re working hard and we’re starting to have thyroid problems and need couples therapy. Dance is a private revolution and I see more and more of us, mostly women, seek it out. To feel alive. To get to The Zone. But a self-consciousness hovers around Claire and Therese (and others, when others do join). The spectre of the world around them in which this kind of activity doesn’t quite fit. The previously self-contained wife of an ageing property developer under investigation by the SFO going nuts with her freshly agitated neighbour.

What happens when middle-aged women start dancing? And dancing with abandon?

Therese and Claire’s attempts to ringfence patches of freedom and transcendence brought to mind Julia Croft’s theatre-dance show ‘If there’s no dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming’. The show is a brilliant exploration of the ways in which women’s bodies are worked upon by the expectations and demands of external forces. It’s funny, political and open-ended. It’s also startling because it reminds us how joyful dancing is. Why is it that we stop doing it? I don’t think that Perkins is making fun of The Zone. I think there’s a possibility that she’s doing the opposite. 

In the novel, these moments are an almost tragically small sliver of selfless abandon for women who have, up until now, largely done as they were told. For Therese, who is loaded with a suite of upper middle-class concerns, finding The Zone is, partially, an antidote to worry: “Stop worrying? It was all I did! All the television shows I watched, the articles I read and all the podcasts I listened to were worried, worried about the climate, worried about injustice, worried about how to be good, what was good, whether this person or that was good, whether one could ever be good enough to just be aware of the problem, but that was where I’d got stuck. Part of me longed for the dumb, rich days of not knowing. A large part.”

But even Claire, with all of her apparent swagger, is trying something on. Early in the novel we learn that Claire and her husband have swapped what they each organise within their marriage (one way that the novel illuminates arguments around emotional and domestic labour); and that the experiment is extended when both daughter and husband move to Auckland for a year, leaving Claire free to go off her antidepressants (telling Therese “the family liked me better” when she was on them) and have their place all to herself. When the newfound space also offers a portal for Therese, we, the reader, may well fall into the trap of thinking that the unfettered dancing and the covering of mirrors and the shucking of homewares is a kind of answer. But Perkins is not interested in letting anyone off that easily. We’re all a witness when Claire’s privileged experiment is punctured by her stressed, single-mother sister: “The thing is,” said Melissa, “not everyone can do a so-called ‘role switch’. Some people have to do the money job and the compost and the car rego and the emotional support because there’s no one else to do it.”

This is the sharp, soft satire of Lioness: everything is questioned, and everyone is questionable, even Therese’s personal witch.

The alchemy of family is the lynchpin and the undoing in Lioness, as it is in life. Some of the funniest and most gruelling scenes in the novel are when Trevor’s family (Therese’s inherited one) come together in one or another of their long-held holiday homes. The mess of rich siblings reminded me of Succession: the spoiled son Heathcote is a leech and a liar; uptight Caroline with anxious children, venomous towards her stepmother, is furiously protective of “family spaces” giving rise to the damaged child archetype; and ex-wife Judith could be well cast in the TV version with Harriet Walter (who plays Lady Caroline, Logan Roy’s ex). These are the moments that we get to see how on the outer Therese always is, no matter how much childcare she does, or how long she’s been married to Trevor, or how mechanically nice she is and how much stuff she arranges and provides. 

Infuriated. That’s the sensation we want Therese to express. Every time she is undermined by spoiled step-children, dismissed by Trevor, and used. It’s gratifying when she finally kind of gets there with one of the funniest and most rousing lines in recent fiction: “I recognised it everywhere now, on the streets – each woman like a storm in a body, a weather system on a leash.”

In the end (or the middle, because that’s where we start and end with Therese) it comes back to bodies and language. To have to pee outside is a rite of passage for New Zealanders. Those long cross-country drives that require a roadside squat and, for women, extra thigh strength and contortions to keep clothing out of the stream. It’s not something that polite Therese would do but when Claire encourages her to (slightly drunkenly) pee on the lawn when she needs to, we see something crack. It’s all in the words here, too: “‘I need a piss,’ I said. It was only the way she looked at me then that made me realise how I sounded. Not like Therese.”

Money and marriage within a capitalist system changed Teresa into Therese but as her voice strengthens and she settles more comfortably in her body she recognises, amid all the other revelations, the internal drive that helped craft Therese, too: “she was so tiny, and so hungry”. Ultimately this is a novel about understanding choices: what severances you may have to make; what you do with that hunger; and what you consider to be a punishment, or reward.

Lioness by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury, $37) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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