Back from Manchester (more of which next week) with a rare thing for me: a review of a book whose author approached me directly. I tend to politely turn these down to avoid any disappointment or awkwardness but I liked the sound of Clare O’Dea’s Voting Day which follows four women over the course of a single day in February, 1959 when Swiss men voted in a referendum to decide the question of women’s suffrage.
I’m not one for politics, but this vote feels like an important test. Either we are in this together, men and women, or we are not.
Farmer’s wife Vreni is off to Bern for an operation, keen to see her daughter, Margrit, before she’s admitted to hospital. She knows her husband and her two sons will get by but is a little fretful about the ten-year-old boy they’re fostering. Vreni’s proud of her independent daughter but can’t help hoping she’ll settle down with a nice man soon, her hopes raised then dashed when she sees Margrit with a handsome young man at the station. After a tense lunch, Vreni extracts the sorry story of her daughter’s predicament at work, insisting that they confront her boss to Margrit’s amazement. When they arrive at the hospital, a little frazzled, Margrit is surprised by the cleaner, apparently keen to avoid any contact with Vreni. Esther longs to be reunited with her son who is being fostered. Vreni is admitted by Beatrice, the hospital administrator who’s taken Esther under her wing and who today is preoccupied with the result of the referendum which she can hardly bear to learn.
You just have to act like them, as if the world belongs to you, too. It confuses them.
O’Dea neatly structures this brief novella, giving each woman a section then bringing them together in an epilogue a year after the referendum. Of the four, only Beatrice is politically engaged, eager to have a say in her country’s future. For the others, it’s a background hum, maybe a little louder for Margrit, yet all have faced male dominance: for Vreni it’s a victory to get Peter to make the sandwiches while her daughter is facing appalling sexual harassment at work; Esther was forced to resort to prostitution as a single mother while Beatrice was denied the opportunities open to her brother. I knew the referendum’s result, of course, but couldn’t help sharing Beatrice’s disappointment when she learnt it. O’Dea’s author’s note contextualises her novel, paying tribute to the activist Marthe Gosteli who she’d interviewed. I was delighted to find that Gosteli lived to be 100 and must have cast many votes after suffrage was finally awarded to Swiss women in 1971. My mother drummed the importance of voting into me when I was very young and I’ve never knowingly missed casting mine, always remembering the sacrifices made so that I could.
Fairlight Books: Oxford 9781914148071 160 pages Paperback