Book review: The Knighton Women’s Compendium

Hot on the heels of her debut novel The Family String, South Australian author Denise Picton brings us a new and hilariously uplifting tale – The Knighton Women’s Compendium.

Dec 07, 2023, updated Dec 07, 2023

Through the lives of one highly idiosyncratic family, this whimsical story delves into the history of first and second-wave feminism in Australia, the evolving values and philosophies that made each wave distinct, and the fundamental principles binding them together.

It is set in 1982 in a small town in the South Australia’s Clare Valley, where four generations of Knighton women are all living under the same roof.

Greaty, the family matriarch at 75, was a suffragette in her youth. While she’s seen the world change, she knows the battle is far from won. Late at night, she works on creating her legacy, The Knighton Women’s Compendium – a supplement to her precious volume, The Women’s Annual (1905).

Entry by entry, Greaty weighs the principles of her generation in the light of the challenges of the present, hoping to pass down all she has learned about how to remain true to yourself and independent of mind in a world still in thrall to the myth of male superiority.

Her daughter, Flora (also known as Gran), is a radical feminist, embodying second-wave feminism to her work-boots-and-overalls core. Always primed for battle, Gran never backs away from a chance to set an injustice straight, righteously throwing her unstoppable activist energy behind allied causes from same-sex couples to workers’ rights. As a result, she finds it hard to swallow her disappointment at her daughter’s lack of feminist fire.

Lucy is a single mother with a chronic illness. Unable to work, she’s more concerned with financial security than adhering to feminist ideals about women’s economic self-sufficiency. She’d rather settle for finding a husband willing to be a stepfather to the youngest of the Knighton clan, 12-year-old Holly.

Holly, the story’s enchanting narrator, has her own room in the sprawling but ramshackle family residence, her walls plastered with posters of her idol, Oliva Newton-John. Despite existing within a family that can barely put a meal on the table without sparking a feisty philosophical debate, Holly has dreams that drift far above the gritty realities facing her politically principled but cash-strapped family. She wants to become a dancer – not just any dancer, but a tap dancer good enough to catch the eye of Newton-John and tour the world at her idol’s side.

When Holly enters a dance marathon in Adelaide, plotting to win as the first step in her larger strategy of finding fame and celebrity in Olivia’s entourage, the Knighton women band together in support. But as the marathon draws closer, Gran finds the event’s conventional rules too difficult to swallow. As her activist ire mounts, the family begins to split along generational lines.

Packed with wit, feisty dialogue and ’80s nostalgia, this novel also achieves its cunning mission of mapping the history of the white feminist movement in Australia to the end of its second wave.

Uplifting and hopeful, yet not shying from conflict, the chapters fly by with hearty doses of whimsy and spirited debates featuring misquotes of Bertholt Brecht. But below the banter, Picton lays out the flaws and virtues of each strand of feminism, and the roles class and financial security play in the privilege of living according to one’s principles.

The Knighton Women’s Compendium is heart-warming and full of charm, coupling an hilarious blast of early ’80s nostalgia with a quick refresher on feminist history.

The Knighton Women’s Compendium, by Denise Picton, is published by Ultimo Press.

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