Chatto & Windus, £16.99, 242pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age, By Jane Shilling

I felt like a soft-boiled egg, a dissected frog, a jellied blob of sea anemone pecked by the cruel beaks of seabirds": Jane Shilling's memoir is an exuberant epitaph on youth, a girlie chat, an album of memories and reflections on identity, memory, the ageing female body and that other woman over there in the mirror who is not myself. Just cannot be. And is. Je est un autre. The book is a lovely, easy read: Shilling's style, dashingly cavalier and artfully artless, bubbles with wit and brio. Never was a lament less lugubrious.

Like the self, memory is unstable; it flows and changes, dissolving and reforming at every turn. Shilling recreates a medley of crucial moments in a roving present tense. The opening scene sees Jane (17) sitting in a sunny garden with her mother (42) and grandmother (71): they are podding peas and asking one another, "How old do you think you are?" Mum feels 27; Gran 35. Jane is sure of her own immunity to the spell that transformed her mum from a golden, leggy lass into a woman with varicose veins, toenails ridged like limpet shells. Yet here, in a trice, is Jane at 50. There's a crone in the mirror. It's me, allegedly. However did this happen?

The narrator-heroine of The Stranger in the Mirror inhabits a preposterous nursery-tale world, at the mercy of swooping metamorphoses and transformations. Ovidian ironies reign. As a child Jane would awaken surprised that she had not been "turned into a mouse or seal or swan" but was still here, in the same bed. But now look at her – soft-boiled-egged, dissected, jellied, stranded in middle age. She's equipped with a saving joie d'écrire, fighting change with ruefully comic metamorphosis. The Doppelgänger performs curative comic turns in a hall of mirrors. When Jane buys a horse, she has "inadvertently purchased myself in equine form". The child is always evident in the woman – "At fifty, I feel that I am still working out what I want to be when I grow up".

Middle age is by tradition a period of wisdom and creativity. Dante certainly found it so: "Upon the journey of our life midway," he opens his Inferno, "I came unto myself in a dark wood". It is a time for vatic wisdom and creative achievement; for freedom from the impulses and vanities of youth. Shilling does not find it so. She distinguishes rigidly between male and female experience, as if we belonged to different species. But can't I emulate Dante? Do I have to spend my life like the medieval Lady Vanity, gawping at my face in a mirror and seeing a memento mori or a parti-coloured fool? Shilling's story is in part a case history of fatal entrapment by a narcissistic magazine culture.

Yet The Stranger in the Mirror is intelligent and thoughtful, a quest for and valedictory to a self that can never be snared, claimed, construed; it wears its learning lightly. Shilling leafs through Montaigne, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Chaucer. The feisty Wife of Bath is celebrated for her farewell to beauty and sexiness: "Lat-go, fare-wel, the devel go therwith!" Good idea – and then, like George Eliot, we might happily devote more time looking out of the window than into the mirror.

Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'Into Suez' (Parthian)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits