The Stranger in the Mirror, By Jane Shilling


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The Independent Culture

"I don't believe in ageing," wrote Virginia Woolf when she hit 50. "I believe in forever altering one's aspect to the sun." This pragmatic approach to middle-age struck journalist Jane Shilling as a better idea than "sticking a patch on my bottom and knocking a decade off my age." These candid memoirs of her own menopausal years get to grips with one of life's less pretty metamorphoses.

Early on in the book, Shilling takes us back to her teenage self. Sitting in a Kentish garden, shelling peas with her mother and grandmother, Jane surveys the two women through her 17-year old's eyes, believing herself immune to the process that has slowly turned her mother from a "coltish" girl into a woman with varicose veins and gnarly toenails. Yet time marches on and Shilling finds herself fast approaching 50 and still "working out what I want to be when I grow up."

A single working mother, living in Greenwich with her teenage son, Shilling is unafraid to bare all: "I had made neither myself not anyone else happy; done no particular good and some real harm, squandered my chances of love, left my friendships untended, wasted time and opportunities. I had drifted aimlessly through the decades of my prime." And just as her son's star is about to rise, she feels her "energy and authority just past its apex, curving imperceptibly towards a descent".

More optimistic writers have tried selling middle-age as a period of achievement, creativity and that scary word "zest". But when Shilling looks around for role models, she sees female mid-life as largely portrayed as a time of "hot flushes, absent-minded shop-lifting and an overwhelming sense of being cheated by life."

Yet, for her, it's a period "rich in ambiguity and nuance." After a stretch of being single, she has a relationship with a UN doctor and finds some short-term distraction in "what remains of the wilder joys of love."

Shilling casts an analytical and often self-critical eye over the events that have shaped her life. While not as frank as some writers about the physical trials of the menopause, she's upfront about her close relationship with her son, Alexander. Hankies need to be at the ready as she drives him north for his first term at university.

The book might end on a melancholic note but, like her literary hero, Montaigne, Shilling has honoured her plan to "tell the truth, as much as I dare - and as I grow older I dare a little more."