Book review: The Knighton Women’s Compendium by Denise Picton

Saturday, January 21, 2023 Permalink

The Knighton Women’s Compendium wasn’t really on my radar until I realised it was by Denise Picton, whose debut novel The Family String was my favourite book of 2022. As a result I put in a belated request for a review copy and was then even more excited to discover the book featured my favourite kind of narrator – a child! I regretted the time I’d wasted having initially eschewed this (thinking – from the cover perhaps – it was another book about women in a retirement village!), though at the same time happy I could savour this delectable treat.

Book review: The Knighton Women’s Compendium by Denise PictonThe Knighton Women's Compendium
by Denise Picton
Published by Ultimo Press
on 04/01/2023
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
ISBN: 9781761150685
Pages: 320

It's 1982. The Knighton women, all living under one roof are about to be struck with dance marathon fever...

Greaty, 75, matriarch of the Knighton family. Turning down marriage proposals since 1927, backbone of her Clare Valley community. Favourite dance: The Foxtrot.

Gran, 55, on the frontline of the women’s movement with her best friend, Wilma. Never saw a picket line she didn’t like. Favourite dance: The Twist.

Lucy, 32, single mother, romantic, looking to find a man and get married – finally. Favourite dance: The Hustle.

Holly, 12, obsessed with Australia's favourite star, best friends with Barry Jones and determined to win Adelaide’s illustrious dance marathon. Favourite dance: Tap!

Holly, on verge of teenhood, is finding her own feet, banking on becoming a famous dancer, until Gran and Wilma decide the marathon is the latest focus of their activism, bringing feminist values to Adelaide’s premier social event of the year…

This book opens with Dorothy writing in the Compendium – a book passed down by her own mother including snippets of wisdom or advice – initially inspired by the 1905 Women’s Annual. When we meet her Dorothy is considering the four generations of Knighton women residing in the house she inherited from her own parents. Picton later includes some excerpts from Dorothy’s Compendium entries… at relevant moments throughout the book.

And then we’re introduced to the youngest of the four generations of Knighton women – the delightful 12 year old Holly who loves all-things-Olivia Newton John. Interestingly (well, for me!) I would have been a year or two older than Holly in 1982 so this brought back A LOT of memories.

Holly’s mother (Lucy), Gran (Flora) and Greaty (Dorothy) are vastly different when it comes to values and beliefs. Here Holly proffers some of their arguments and battles but also allows us to see how they love and protect each other nonetheless. Lucy, for example is obsessed with women’s magazines and believes beauty is key to finding a man and being ‘looked after’, much to the horror of her feminist mother.

Picton absolutely nails the voice of Holly and, as a result, our exposure to the Knighton women through Holly’s eyes, is untainted by experience or nuance. It means readers get objective insight into the lives of the three older women and their relationships – with each other and outsiders.

It could be weird that this book is centred around a dance-off. An odd and trivial event on which to focus, surely? But the way in which Picton mirrors/reflects turning points in all four characters’ lives in the build up to the dance-off is clever… building to a perfectly timed crescendo.

This has everything I look for in a book, it offers delightful characters in the Knighton women, as well as those around them. There’s a crisis or two that become pivotal in the lives of the women – to keep the pace of the plot flowing and readers interested, but most of all it’s beautifully written through the eyes of a smart, inquisitive and very likeable girl.

She said I might be the next Miss Audrey Hepburn dancing with Mr Fred Astaire and that my passions must not be thwarted.

I had to look up thwarted in our big dictionary to be sure it wasn’t a criticism, because Greaty could be fiercely critical of pretty much everyone and everything. But the word was a good choice for the situation and I felt it showed she was on my side. I rolled it around in my mouth like a boiled sweet and tucked it away until I could use it myself. p 6

Of course this isn’t all about dancing. There are underlying themes around feminism, relationships, marriage and family. About being selfish and selfless. And about accepting what we believe we deserve.

The Knighton Women’s Compendium by Denise Picton was published by Ultimo Press and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers for review purposes. 


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