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An outstanding social study
on 7 May 2014
Diana Athill and Penelope Lively have explored the bumpy territory of female ageing from the perspective of an insider. Both have written enjoyable reflections, part memoir, part whimsy and each giving a very personal view.
Lynne Segal's exploration of the same subject in Out of Time takes us into a totally different dimension; the scope is vast and difficult to define. It's certainly academic, but it's also very readable. It's literary, with reference throughout to notable authors and their work. Her feminist and radical socialist background speak clearly but as a measured voice of fact, reason and experience. It's political, historical, part biographical...but most of all it's amazing. Overall it's a definitive, impressive and frequently challenging social study.
The premise of cultural conditioning is referenced throughout. She starts with gender expectation where, through folklore and myth, the older female is strongly represented as gorgon, witch, harridan and the like. A figure made monstrous solely by age and gender. A negative and very prescriptive portrayal. Currently, older people are often seen as those responsible for depleting scarce resources. Many would prefer that the baby boomer generation which 'never had it so good' would now just slope off quietly and leave scarce resources to those who deserve them, the young.
As they age, women often wonder what's happened to the face in the mirror. Lynne Segal considers this in depth. What's happened to their expectations, sexuality and ambition? Is it a period of 'devastation and decline' or 'preservation and possibility'? How old is 'old'? Is a person old if they 'seem young'? How do you age well?
It's meticulously researched, often revealing and poignant, particularly when considering loneliness, loss and bereavement. It's thought provoking. I like the idea of temporal vertigo; where age allows time travel through all the ages experienced. A sleeping 70 year old can be 17 in their dreams! But more than that, how are past experiences absorbed and used to make a better present and future for each person? Lynne Segal reminds us that the generation which used political activism to improve the lot of women still has a voice. We should use it. Out of Time is intellectual but totally engaging and unique. All in all, one of the most powerful books I've read in recent years and one I shall return to.
My thanks to the publisher, Verso, for a review copy via Netgalley.