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  • Pauline Holdstock: Confessions with Keith

    Amy Reiswig

    Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel, written in a diary format by a woman in the throes of marriage collapse and a new career, reminds us that we’re never really in control—and that some days humour is the only way to cope.


    I HAVE A CONFESSION to make. I write in my books. Often it’s to note emerging themes or recurring images, but in Pauline Holdstock’s new novel it was a lot of “ha,” “lol,” and in caps “YES.” Confessions with Keith (Biblioasis, September 2022) invites us into the privacy of extracts from the diary of Vita Glass as she navigates the tumult of middle age, motherhood, pet management, the facades and fictions of social life, marital mysteries, and questions about where meaning is truly to be found. 

    The diary format means Vita writes like no one’s listening, and so it reflects the way we talk to ourselves depending on what we need. Sometimes just fragments, sometimes dense with detail, the book is playful and creative, biting and critical, insightful and loving. 

    And funny. Because as Holdstock reminds us, so much of our experience of life is about perspective, and Vita—whose name means “life”—is highly attuned to the absurd, including of thinking we’re ever really in control. Really, some days humour is the only way to cope. Full of self-examination and self-questioning, Vita’s first-person ‘truth’ allows readers standing outside her individual maelstrom to see that what we could all use more of is self-compassion. For in addition to funny, life is also painful and beautiful and we are in it both alone and together.


    ORIGINALLY FROM THE UK, longtime Victoria area resident Holdstock is perhaps best known for her historical fiction, including the Giller-shortlisted Beyond Measure (which won the 2005 Ethel Wilson Award for Fiction) and The Hunter and The Wild Girl, winner of the 2016 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. But Confessions with Keith, her eleventh book, takes us to the not-so-distant familiarity of 1990s Victoria, where Mother’s Day begins with Vita pulling a Master of the Universe toy out of the shower drain. The day doesn’t really get better, unless you count having to explain “Well-hung BGM” to the child who wrapped their present in a page of personal ads. (Vita’s answer: “New kind of BMX,” noting to herself that “sometimes lying is the wisest choice.”) 



    Pauline Holdstock


    Vita leads a life of quiet privilege, with a house by the water, husband, four kids, friends, a writing career, and even a regular hair stylist—Keith of the title, who oversees Bangs salon. But like any seemingly calm sea, currents can pull in all kinds of directions underneath, and what’s visible is rarely all there is to know. 

    In entries spanning 15 months—often skipping days or a week at a time—Vita’s single, personal point of view allows Holdstock to explore the theme, found in many of her works, of the interplay between the revealed and the hidden, the seen and unseen. What does Vita choose to record? What is said versus unsaid? The diary format itself opens holes—the left out, the gaps, moments recounted versus those condensed or completely ignored. The reader therefore has work to do filling in, for we can see, hopefully, more clearly than the physically and figuratively blurry-visioned Vita. 

    What we also see is that truth, especially in a diary, is not absolute. “We all like it when the power goes out,” Vita writes cheerfully on day 1 of an outage. But after four days, “We all hate power cuts.” On the one hand, Vita feels it’s strange that her down-to-the-marrow suffering over marital disintegration isn’t obvious to everyone: “How to meet the teacher and make peanut butter sandwiches with the self slowly coming apart, cell by bloody cell? And—here is the really spooky part—NO ONE ELSE CAN SEE IT.” But later she notes the opposite with the sense that it’s all too visible: “I cannot shake the feeling abandonment shows.” Hers are the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves on any given day, and she demonstrates how our sense of self and of life can be shaped by our perception and our retelling.   

    As a result, the book also offers a kind of commentary about writing and the ways it both can and can’t express our experience. Holdstock has made Vita a writer, a poet who amid chaotic family upheavals begins a new career publishing food erotica. Everything in her world is shifting, including her vision of the produce aisle (though she draws the line at zucchinis). She is an observer and, in her diary, a kind of reporter, but sometimes that doesn’t do justice to the depth of a situation. After describing a quiet evening of listening to the sounds of owls, sea, and wind-blown cedars Vita writes: “Sounds like a nice night when I write it all down. It wasn’t.” 

    In some ways, writing can flatten and strip away or cover over emotion. But Vita is not solely a reporter; she’s an explorer who finds herself fumbling and tumbling in her feelings and her words. “Spent most of the night lying awake practising what to say when I talk about it. Jack and I are through. We are through, out the other side. No longer one. No longer two. Jack is leaving me. I am left by Jack. Jack and I are splitting up. Jack has split. Up. I am splitting with Jack. We are going our separate ways. Jack and I no longer see eye to eye. Sleep face to face. Toe to toe. Oh. Oh. No.” 

    Through Vita, Holdstock is at glorious play in and with language—all of its silliness and suggestiveness, its layers of resonance, and its ability to sometimes capture a moment perfectly in sound and connect us through recognition. “Gradually the noises of the campsite wound down in a long decrescendo from shouts and laughter in the dark to footsteps and car doors and finally to whispers and zippers.” YES.

    Underlying the blend of domestic comedy and near-tragedy is, therefore, a consideration of the role of art and our need for story. That’s part of where Keith comes in. Keith, Vita’s hairdresser at Bangs, is a kind of story-keeper. “It’s bliss at Keith’s. Bliss. That’s why I go. Of course.” Except…is he really that profound? Talking about a sense of woe, Vita says to Keith: “‘Everything’s a matter of outlook. What’s yours?’ Keith said, ‘What’s my what?’ I said, ‘Never mind. Just tell me more of your stories. They’re always good.’”

    Keith might not be the deepest thinker between these pages, but stories divert, and sometimes that is exactly what we need. In one of Holdstock’s blog posts, called “One Good Reason to Tell Tales,” she writes that “The truth is way too difficult to tackle bare handed. You can’t grasp it. It’s prickly. It burns. It bites….Wear a disguise. Pretend you are busy with something else.” Like hair. Reflecting on the women she used to see sitting under salon chrome domes, Vita thinks: “It wasn’t permanent waves they were after. It was alpha waves. They were meditating—long before it became a thing. They were having their moments of pure being, of Oneness. They were probably having glimpses of Other. Or if they weren’t, they were writing in their diaries in their heads or having a steamy time with Omar Sharif.” Ha! And YES. 


    “VIRGINIA WOOLF said Life, if it is to be compared to anything, must be compared to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour.” Vita adds, “I think it bears a pretty good resemblance as well to being dragged through the town by a crazed steer…. Blood in your nose and grit in your hair.” But as she reports later, it can also be “Beach breakfast beach lunch beach dinner. Beach. Heaven.” 

    Vita Glass’s very name reflects both the fragility and strength of life, noting that, like truth, it is not wholly one thing or another. It can be a source of light and of hard barriers, something that protects and something that can shatter. 

    Confessions with Keith reminds us that life is a raw, radiant, and ridiculous story unfolding moment by moment for everyone in their separate subjectivities. It deserves laughter. It deserves tears. It is made more bearable by books like this, the literary equivalent of uncensored midnight conversation over cups of tea or glasses—plural—of wine. What Vita observes of festival street performers could well be said of reading Holdstock’s newest creation: “It was a shared experience of human life, a little bit of eternity together.” YES.

    Having quit her job as an editor at the Legislative Assembly, writer Amy Reiswig is enjoying productive self-reinvention finally living full-time on Mayne Island.

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