The Stranger in the Mirror: a Memoir of Middle Age
Chatto & Windus, 256pp, £16.99
At a time when fiction has never been less fashionable, it is inevitable that the memoir should be in the ascendant. Jane Shilling's memoir of middle age, like Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, is an intimate portrait of an experience many women go through, and will prove as essential for those in mourning for their youth.
Best-known for her book The Fox in the Cupboard, about the joys of discovering hunting late in life, Shilling may not be familiar to New Statesman readers. She has written mostly for the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and the Telegraph, where her quirky columns and luminously perceptive book reviews mark her out as a pearl among swine. Devotees of her work may have gathered that she is an Oxford English graduate and single mother of a son, and lives precariously in a cottage in Greenwich. The jacket, which features a photograph of the author naked, may prepare you for some of the elegant eccentricities and heart-rending revelations within. Any woman of a certain age who has ever glanced in the mirror and seen someone whom they fail to recognise will heave a sigh of relief at finding so much of her own experience encapsulated within - though they may also envy Shilling her slender figure.
In 2009, the average age in the UK was 39.5 years. Baby boomers have become accustomed to finding their own experience as a woman "reflected in the culture . . . Until the onset of middle age, when, all of a sudden, there was apparently no one like me at all." Although Pamela Stephenson wowed audiences in Strictly Come Dancing and Mamma Mia! became the surprise screen hit of 2008, Shilling is perfectly correct to note that the middle-aged woman is under-represented in art, ignored by fashion and cruelly mocked in popular entertainment. So how do you become a national treasure instead of Miss Bates - or, worse still, Madonna?
Though much more interested in clothes than some of us, Shilling believed that "a steady nerve, a good haircut and an enquiring mind would be sufficient protection against most of the outrages that middle age might inflict. By 50 I knew better." Her description of losing her looks encapsulates the comi-tragedy not only of her own life experience, but also some of mine, as I am an exact contemporary. Part of the fascination of this absorbing book, for many female readers, will lie in the points at which our lives and choices diverge, and where they meet and overlap.
Shilling's thoughts on love and ageing are so wise and so memorably expressed that they would grace a literary novel. Interwoven with her own observations are analyses of characters in books by Colette, George Eliot and Henry James, together with sharp accounts of popular TV series such as Ten Years Younger. "As I am old, so shall you be" runs the inscription on old tombstones, but the contempt she discerns in the young towards the old is as ancient as fairy tales, rather than anything new. Why else are the old women in these stories so often witches or fairies in disguise, out to tempt the rude? The advice to resort to plastic surgery has certainly persuaded many, but her experience of Botox, hilariously described, is no advertisement.
Yet I hope that, as a culture, we are not quite as cruel as the vile Little Britain might suggest. Watching Penelope Keith play the role of Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan's Rivals recently, I was struck by the gasps and cries of sympathy from the audience at her humiliation. Mrs Malaprop's error lies in the way she indulges in vanity and self-deception rather than embracing her inner Wodehouse aunt.
Shilling's mild obsession with control and with the delicate, the exquisite and the theatrically miniature almost makes her into a kind of latter-day Jane Austen figure, but for her incisiveness and a promising suggestion of stroppiness. I don't agree with her about HRT - whose risks appear to be minimal and whose benefits are immense - and I also think that the degree of mourning a woman experiences in ageing physically has much to do with her original attitude towards her looks and whether she has a daughter to carry the baton of beauty into the future. Unlucky in many regards, the author wrings your heart with descriptions of the "dream babies" and family she imagined she would have one day, her desperate need to get
a new job after being fired two years ago from the regular column on which her finances depended and her long wait for a lover to return to her, only to dump her again.
Her dignified, clear-eyed understanding that everything will not be all right, that you may not be taken care of and that love does not solve every problem is a sad corrective to a dreamy naivety that sometimes made me want to smack her. Yet she counts as her tremendous blessing her greatest "mistake" - having a child alone - and rightly so. What this remarkable memoir leaves you with, however, is not only laughter and sighs, but huge admiration for Shilling's success in the wonky British teeth of so many odds - and the hope that, for all of us, calmer times may yet be in store once the turbulent middle passage is over.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is "Hearts and Minds" (Abacus, £8.99)