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.”