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Island Bookshelf: Humor softens a haunting pain


Island Bookshelf: Humor softens a haunting pain

Lola Bensky is a 19-year-old rock journalist on assignment in the heart of the London music scene at one of the most exciting times in music history — 1967.


Bensky was based on Lily Brett’s own experiences covering some of rock’s biggest stars. Her private conversations with Janis Joplin, Cher and others enrich the narrative. “I learned that Mick Jagger is very smart,” she said, “and Jimi Hendrix was incredibly sensitive. I first saw Jimi Hendrix on the London stage, and I never knew anyone could move like that.”

Ms. Brett grew up in Australia, the child of refugees who had survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Their experience is deeply imprinted in her life. Even Lola Bensky and other characters in her novels share that haunting background.

In 2014, Ms. Brett won France’s Prix Médicis Étranger for “Lola Bensky.” “I was only the fourth woman and the first Australian to win the award,” she said. “I was incredibly proud to receive the award, first, being Jewish, and second, being a woman.”

What’s frequently hailed about her writing is, somewhat surprisingly, her sense of humor. “My father had a fabulous sense of humor,” she recalled. “He showed me that when you laugh, your life is so enriched. He would laugh until he cried.” One of the few times she could remember her mother laughing, the author said, was when young Lily stole a turtle from her kindergarten class.

“‘Where did that come from?’” my mother asked. “It followed me home,” I said. When she finally stopped laughing at this preposterous response, “she marched me back to school and announced ‘My daughter stole your turtle!’”

Ms. Brett and her husband, Australian painter David Rankin, first visited the Island as the guests of her editor when she was working at her first job. Mr. Rankin wanted so much to have their own place here that he asked her to promise they could buy one if she won a literary award with a cash prize for which she had been short-listed.

“When the award was announced, I thought Oh my God, should I not tell him?” When she did, of course “he was elated for me, and scooped me up in his arms. Ten minutes later,” she laughed, “he was on the phone to the real estate broker.”

They drove around the Island with the realtor, Ms. Brett said, not finding anything she liked until she was carsick and couldn’t take it anymore. “Finally, we pulled into an overgrown lot and I said ‘This is it!’”

“David said, ‘You haven’t even stepped out of the car!’ I answered, ‘It just feels good to me,’” she said. “David looked at me and said, ‘what is this, Jewish Feng Shui?!’”

Ms. Brett divides her time between Shelter Island and New York City. “I’ve looked back at a lot of the work I’ve done and realized I’ve written 12 of my 13 books on the Island,” she said.

“The most phenomenal aspect of living here and writing,” she added, “is that you don’t have to get dressed. I can stay in my nightie if I wish. When I’m in the city, if I want to run to the supermarket, I have to put on lipstick and fix my hair. When I’m working I run my hands through my hair until it looks botheringly weird. I don’t even look in the mirror here, though, if I’m going to run out to the IGA – or maybe to Marie Eiffel, if I want to feel a little more cosmopolitan.”