Book review: Whenever You’re Ready, Trish Bolton

A debut novel from a Melbourne-based author in which a trio of 70-something women take the spotlight.
Whenever You're Ready. Image on left is a headshot of Trish Bolton, a middle aged woman with grey wavy shoulder length hair. On right is a pink book cover with an illustration of a table laid for tea with a teapot, watermelon and a banksia in a in jar. The title is in green and the author's name in white.

Content warning: the following review contains references to self-harm and suicide.

Yes, it’s great to see a novel where older women are the protagonists, rather than simply the satellite figures in the shape of addled aunts, gregarious grannies or stern seniors, but the really significant impact of focusing on 70-somethings in her debut novel, Whenever You’re Ready, is that Trish Bolton is almost able to conduct a longitudinal study. Or at least a detailed examination of past traumatic experiences and the ripple effects they can have over time, popping back up to make their presence felt over and over again. And sometimes when least expected.

Bolton opens Whenever You’re Ready with a prologue in which one of her three central characters prepares to end, not only her own life, but also that of her dementia-affected husband, Jeremy. Claire will leave behind their daughter Jane, but also her long-time friends, Lizzie and Alice.

A murder/suicide will naturally send out shock waves in every direction, but it is the past events that Claire’s decision brings to the surface that are Bolton’s chief concern. And she’s picked well – a tragedy and a secret that are momentous enough to merit a whole novel to unpack, but also familiar enough that most readers will have some experience of both, however tangentially.

Read: Move over Millennials, it’s time for older women writers to shine

The tragedy is the death of a child, which is, as anyone who has experienced it will know, a grief that never goes away. It may change, it may adapt, but a family that loses a child suffers from that loss for the rest of their lives. In one way or another.

The secret, on the other hand, is not to be revealed here, as that would be quite the spoiler. But its details are not really important, because Bolton’s focus is rather on how holding onto a secret over many years affects not only those whose secret it is, but also those who become privy to it, whether intentionally or not.

And the results ring true. Bolton gives us a range of detailed and carefully drawn characters, including Lizzie’s uptight and Instagram-obsessed daughter, Margot, who is one of those familiar figures that appears to spend her days shepherding her photogenic family into one perfect pose after another, but clearly at the expense of living a life of any genuine substance or authenticity.

While there could be a case made for slight incredulity that personalities as disparate as Alice and Lizzie would have stayed friends for such a long time, readers only have to look at their own friendship groups to realise that sometimes this is exactly what happens – that somehow someone who perhaps no longer seems to belong one’s tribe, through circumstance, shared history or some other reason, remains firmly part of the fabric.

Read: Book review: Cool Water, Myfanwy Jones

Considering the weight of her subject matter, Bolton’s writing style is conversational and very easy to read, but the emotions and friendship ties she unravels are convincingly drawn. Whenever You’re Ready is a fine debut, one suffused with heart, compassion and forgiveness for the sins of friends – because, as Joe E Brown once so memorably informed Jack Lemmon, ‘Nobody’s perfect‘.

Whenever You’re Ready, Trish Bolton
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781761470271
Pages: 314pp
Publication Date: 30 January 2024
RRP: $32.99

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.