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Lola Bensky, by Lily Brett (Melbourne: Penguin, 2012)
Lily Brett is one of Australia’s most highly acclaimed and prolific authors, having produced seven books of poetry, three collections of essays and six works of fiction to date. Her latest novel, Lola Bensky, however, is perhaps more accurately described as semi-autobiographical – there are many thinly-veiled parallels that may be discerned between the author and the eponymous protagonist. It doesn’t take a genius to notice, for example, that both women share the initials L. B.
Just like Lola, Lily Brett was born to two Polish Jews who survived six years in the Lodz ghettos before being incarcerated in the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz during the Second World War. Both Lola and Lily grew up in a displaced persons camp before immigrating with their respective families to Melbourne. By the age of nineteen, they were both working for prominent Australian music magazines and interviewing some of the biggest names in the history of rock and pop.
It is fair to say that most readers will pick up Lola Bensky with the expectation of gaining an insider’s perspective on what their idols of the 1960s music scene were really like. Throughout the course of the book, we learn that Mick Jagger was, and indeed still is, remarkably down to earth, and that Jimi Hendrix was (off-stage, at least) surprisingly mild-mannered and polite. We also bear witness to Janis Joplin’s niggling insecurity about her musical talents, to Brian Jones’s unbridled hedonism, and to the dark side of Jim Morrison—twisted, unnerving, if not down-right poisonous.
It would have been so easy for Lola herself to have faded, cipher-like, into the background, being surrounded by so many legendary icons. However, Lola’s pervasive preoccupation with her weight and, more importantly, with the demons of her parents’ past serve to make her, fittingly, the most interesting character of all. Unfazed by the growing fame of her subjects, she talks to them like normal people who share with her the common bond of humanity and curiosity about the world’s great unanswered questions.
Initially, I must admit that the style of writing struck me as repetitive and gauche, and the narrative didn’t appear to have quite mastered the concept of flow, which seemed odd given the author’s literary credentials. Yet, as I progressed through the book I reached the conclusion that this may well have been deliberate. Despite her independence and extensive knowledge of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany, there is a touching naivety to Brett’s alter-ego—a child-like quality that you cannot help but warm to.
It is these humorous, quizzical touches to Lola’s personality that work, counter-intuitively, to uplift the reader whenever she is haunted by the spectres of the hapless dead. By the end of the novel, Lola/Lily is mourning not only her murdered ancestors but also the members of the 27 Club: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison famously all died at the age of 27. Fortunately, the ever-inquisitive voice of this likeable heroine ultimately prevents Brett’s memoirs from becoming a funeral dirge; Lola recounts a voyage of self-discovery that ends with a survivor’s smile on an ocean of relative calm.