Barbara Else is widely known for her short stories, plays and poetry, but The Warrior Queen, a warm, witty and stylishly written novel, is her first full-length work. Most of the action takes place in the upmarket Auckland settings of Remuera and Parnell, and it is in the latter suburb that Kate Wildburn, a gentle, attractive woman of 41, lives with her husband Richard, an ambitious, rather grumpy surgeon. They have three children, 18-year-old twins Alice and Owen, and Jessica, who is 16. Completing the family circle is a part-Doberman called Satan, who is one of the most engaging characters in the book.
The story opens in Sydney where Kate and Jessica have accompanied Richard to a drug company-sponsored medical conference. He has carefully explained that while it is to be a holiday for mother and daughter, father will be engaged upon his serious Man’s Work, earning the money so that his dependent women can shop till they drop. This Kate and Jessica have managed to do quite well, with Kate, perhaps, going about it more as a duty than from inclination.
On this particular morning she is in bed, trying to distract herself from a painful period by studying a Russian grammar text she has packed as a holiday task. At this point, Kate is carefully presented as a woman doing all the right things expected of a wife and mother in fairly affluent circumstances, which include having an interest such as learning a language to indicate she has a mind not wholly rotted by domesticity. Any rebellious thoughts that she may have are kept strictly to herself.
It is only when they return, Kate thankful to be back in their pretty, well-appointed home, that the image of a model family they present to the world is seriously dislocated. They attend a medical dinner – yet another drug company-sponsored wingding – where Richard hopes he might press the right buttons to gain a research or travel grant of the sort his colleagues seem to achieve with such ease: Kate is brusquely instructed to be especially charming to anyone present who might be helpful. Instead, she finds herself strongly attracted to a drug-company executive and gripped by a physical excitement of a kind unknown to her before. Richard is not so lucky as he discovers that it is a gynaecologist who is getting the grant he was after and, once more, he has missed out.
Worse follows when Kate takes a jacket of Richard’s to the drycleaners and finds in the pocket a receipt from a motel on the other side of the harbour where he has apparently spent $118 on a room. There had been no overnight absences, so was this what he had been up to instead of spending his usual afternoon off playing golf?
Overwhelmed with shock, Kate hurries off to confide in her slightly bohemian sister Amelia who, though married happily enough, is not averse to an occasional bit on the side. But all that Amelia can suggest is that Kate’s real problem is low self-esteem and that she should see a counsellor. More helpful is Kate’s best friend Libby, who has not only survived divorce but is successfully breaking in a new partner and, although she does not recommend divorce for Kate, it is she who inspires the guerrilla campaign in which, much to her surprise, Kate becomes the warrior queen of the title.
A cunning plan to trap the unsuspecting Richard is worked up over numerous lunches and cups of coffee while various strategies and possible Other Woman suspects are considered. As momentum gathers, Kate’s self-esteem rises in leaps and bounds, thanks to the heights to which her new-found confidence carries her.
Barbara Else has a wonderfully sharp and observant eye for detail and rarely does our fiction crackle along with such pace and humour. Kate’s own tentative venture into adultery is beautifully described. There is, however, an underlying seriousness of tone concerning family relationships and responsibilities and, at the end, events are no more smoothly rounded off than is commonly the case in real life.
The publisher’s blurb describes the book as black comedy – I would rather say human comedy. It was with real regret that turned the last page of The Warrior Queen. She deserves a lengthy reign.