Cover of book: She I Dare Not Name

Donna Ward
She I Dare Not Name

Donna Ward’s piano was stranded in the middle of her study. She’d pushed it out from one wall but couldn’t get it to the other side. Two friends, a couple, came to dinner. As they were leaving, they noticed the piano. “This is a time when you ask your friends to help,” they advised her – and left without helping. The anecdote of the marooned piano is a nutshell-sized metaphor for the life that Ward – a writer, publisher and psychotherapist – lives without husband or family. It was not her plan; she’d always hoped to find what she calls her “person”. Sometimes, despite all intention of making it to the other side of the room, a piano just gets stuck in the middle.

“Spinster” is the unnamed subject of She I Dare Not Name. Ward assures us that spinster isn’t another name for nun. There has been many an Odysseus in her life, called away in the end by another Calypso or patient Penelope. There was even a fiancé once, but it wasn’t going to work, and she walked away. Ward’s instinct for privacy tugs against her memoirist’s urge towards revelation, frequently leading her to abstraction and archetype. Among her friends and acquaintances are Fabios, Nikes, Hecates and even a Pork Belly, a Perth copper who co-opts her into spying on the criminals on the corner, and then, it appears, betrays her to them. She I Dare Not Name is a cumulative and lyrical, if somewhat self-pitying, memoir in fragments, some energised with narrative, others poetic with reflection. The essays meander through time and space like the rivers that provide their central theme and metaphor.

A feminist, Ward traces the hopeful progress and dreary regress of women’s rights in Australia, from Whitlam through to Abbott and beyond. She despairs that so many women react to her spinster-state by expressing pity, envy that she doesn’t have to deal with the trials conjured up by husbands and children, or barely disguised scorn. I’m not persuaded by her assertion that “being a spinster is the most courageous thing a woman will ever do” – my vote goes to actively fighting the patriarchy for the good of all humankind. But I get it: it takes grit to summon the dignity and resilience to play a hand you didn’t expect to be dealt and that people treat you badly for holding. For all the delicacy of her expression, Ward clearly has that grit in spades.

Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2020 as "Donna Ward, She I Dare Not Name".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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