Lola Bensky by Lily Brett

My first encounter with Lily Brett was in 1986 when my mum, who had never censored my reading in any way, gently took The Auschwitz Poems from my hands and said, “Enough.” I’d been on a long Holocaust reading binge and Brett’s collection of poems had me in tatters.

Lola Bensky is a different Brett. It’s the story of nineteen-year-old Lola, an Australian rock journalist who is sent to London in 1967 to interview Hendrix, Jagger and Joplin, to name a few.  It sounds fanciful, but Lola Bensky is rooted in Brett’s own experience and although it may be difficult to sort fact from fiction in this novel, a glance through Brett’s bio suggests that Lola is almost a memoir. Almost.

Without sounding completely condescending *but nonetheless, does*, I think the majority of readers on Goodreads didn’t ‘get’ Lola, criticising her for being more concerned about the size of her thighs than interviewing Jagger/ Hendrix/ Joplin. Those readers have missed the point. Although musical greatness was before her, the fat squeezing through the holes in her fishnet tights and her ironed hair starting to frizz was forefront in her mind because Lola was young. Very young, as her unintentionally laconic observations reveal –

“Mick Jagger sat opposite her on the other side of the coffee table in a black leather armchair. He was curled up in a curiously passive position. He looked very comfortable. He didn’t look like the anti-establishment destroyer of social values that he and the other Rolling Stones had been labelled.”

But more significantly, Lola’s preoccupation and shame over her weight is tied to the fact that her parents, Renia and Edek, starved in a German concentration camp during WWII. Lola’s survivor’s guilt is ever-present – in her eating, her interviews and her relationships.

“Lola liked accumulating information about people. She found it oddly soothing. She had her own lists, too. Lists of her mother and father’s dead relatives… Lola preferred to list the various diets she was thinking about.
Lola didn’t have time to feel sad. She was too busy being cheerful or planning her interviews or thinking about food. Decades later, Lola Bensky would not be quite as immune to the lists of the dead.”

There’s enough detail about the music industry to satisfy those readers looking for a rock’n’roll story but Lola Bensky is so much more. It’s a story about finding your place in the world, control, and belonging. Brett doesn’t overplay the coming-of-age element – instead, we witness Lola calibrate her experience of the superficial and carefree music scene in London, against the lives of her parents, who despite making a new home in Melbourne, would always bear scars.

“They shared a bond, the children of the victims and the children of the perpetrators. They had so much in common. They grew up with a past that was omnipresent. And incomprehensible. So much of that past didn’t make sense. Much of it was hidden, half-told, hinted at.”

4/5 Brett’s staccato style, Lola’s glib humour and the deeper messages in this book are a stunning combination.

“Harry had said to Lola when she was about thirteen that he would consider going out with her if she lost weight. Lola had stared at Harry Mendel for a long time after he’d said that. Then she’d reached over and taken a large slice of Mrs Mendel’s freshly baked cheesecake.”

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16 responses

    • It’s actually the complete opposite of ‘look at me’ (perhaps the blurb is misleading, or does this book a disservice?). I think it’s a book about identity and ties to history and Brett’s commentary on the Holocaust is, as always, compelling reading.

  1. I loved this book when I read it when it first came out. Lily Brett grew up in Melbourne Australia with many other survivors of Auschwitz who resettled there after the war. I have heard her speak at a book launch she did here in Tasmania. She is very much a New Yorker now having lived there a long time but she has not forgotten her immigrant experiences in Australia growing up. I’m glad you understood her distraction over her own body. Children of Holocaust parents could really never complain about anything because their parents had it so much worse. That guilt trip is very real. I loved her most recent book (I believe) New York stories. I love this lady’s writing, her sense of humour and her Jewish wit. I read everything she does. I enjoyed your understanding and honest review. Excellent.

    • I marked a number of passages about the children of survivors – I think it’s really interesting, mainly because many, many years (decades) ago, I was an exchange student in Germany and I found the ingrained guilt in people my age – born decades after WWII – quite startling. On a recent trip to Berlin I felt that little had changed – there’s an ingrained sense of guilt coupled with a nation of people who are never letting themselves forget. Brett captures this and it’s impressive.

      I haven’t read any of her New York stuff but have already sort it out. Well worth seeking out her poetry if you can.

    • It caused a bit of a stir when it was published because people were trying to sort fact from fiction. I think Brett remained fairly tight-lipped but when you read some of the stuff about the rock stars, it’s fun to speculate!

  2. An American lady commented on my blog last year trying to remember the name of this book. The way she described the story made me think it was based on the life of Lillian Roxon. Eventually we figured out it was Lily Brett’s book, which was promptly added to my wish list and now your review is making my ordering finger is getting itchy.

    • I say hit that order button! I really enjoyed the book and, testament to its strengths, I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it (more than a week ago). As I mentioned, Brett’s tone can seem glib but she tackles such big, interesting issues.

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