Women as Lovers is a compelling early novel from the 2004 Nobel Prize winner, Elfriede Jelinek. Originally published in 1975, the story of two women, Paula and Brigitte, as they grow up and start families in a small Austrian town, is anything but picture postcard pretty. But if you relish innovative, adventurous writing, you will be stunned by what Jelinek achieves with a very simple plot.
The characterisation contrasts Paula, who follows her dreams rather than conforming, with Brigitte, who puts up with the pig Heinz, because he is on his way to owning his own small business. This surprisingly dualistic scheme recalls a novel like Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund. Jelinek's clear dissection and comparison of lives, and of a grim society we can only hope is disappearing, has a mathematical beauty to it. She plays with this mirroring of lives, and satire is never far away. At times the narrative voice sounds like that of a staid government film on life in the provinces; at times it seems we are privy to platitudes and local folk sayings. Yet what we hear would never be heard in a proverb or official documentary, it is far too bleakly true. There are also passages of hilarious cartoon exaggeration, where Jelinek's theatrical skills liven up normally mundane activities like nappy-changing and tea-serving.
Without wishing to reveal too much of the slight plot, this book has to be recommended for its strong, beautiful writing and its brutal honesty. It packs a punch. For romanticisers in particular, this is vital reading. --Stefan Tobler