Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop appears to be an unwieldy title at first. As the books progresses, however, we find that the story does indeed revolve around Isobel’s trip to the corner shop.

Amy Witting is a new author to me so I was a little unprepared for the delight I found in this book.

Amy Witting is an Australian novelist and poet who began publishing her work late in life. To coincide with her 80th birthday her Collected Poems were released in 1998, and the sequel to her much-acclaimed novel I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop was released in June 1999. In 2000 short stories written over a span of nearly fifty years were published in the collection Faces and Voices. Her work is based on life experiences, from her childhood in Annandale, Sydney, to study at Sydney University in the 1930s; her teaching experiences in country NSW and her work in retirement, teaching English to migrant women. Amy Witting’s last novel, After Cynthia, was published in September 2001. She died a few weeks later on 18 September.

Amy Witting’s work was recognised with the Patrick White Award in 1993.

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop won the 2000 Age Book of the Year Award and Fiction Prize”.

Her biography does not tell us if Amy wrote this book from personal experience but somehow, I rather feel she did. If not her own personal experience, then that of someone very close to her.

Isobel of the Way to the Corner Shop is set in a sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis. Witting’s superb rendition of the day to day activities and cures offered by the medical staff is very reminiscent of that wonderful book of Betty Macdonald’s The Plague and I.

The subject matter could be a grim one in the hands of another writer, but, like Macdonald, Witting’s keen sense of humour and extraordinary observations and recordings of her fellow inmates give the reader a sense of being there with them. What a wonder set of characters: Val, the talkative winger; Lance, the adolescent youth who wants to be loved; Dr Wang a fellow TB victim and now on the staff at Mornington, the sanitarium overlooking mountains.

“Lance was sitting up in bed looking malevolently cheerful.

‘What did you do?’

He responded by raising each fist to scratch an armpit in an ape-like gesture, turning to climb the bars of the bedhead, leaning outwards with one hand to snatch imaginery peanutes. It was a lively performance, but most inlikely to impress matron”. (p. 179-180)

Nor did it impress the rather puzzled Red Cross Visitor a Lady Doing Good Works!

Nor can we overlook the miraculous, Adonis-like Dr Stannard, he of the:

“Nothing against his sexual morals. He’s just a careless, amoral bastard, who eats little girls like you for breakfast and doesn’t even know he’s doing it”. (p.347)

The good doctor may not have known it but it appears both patients and staff did. And, like any good institution where the inmates rely on each other for company, gossip is rife – and hurtful.

So where does the title come in? Isobel is ill and out of food in her rooming-house attic dwellings. She sets out for the corner shop.

“On the way she collapses, and to her surprise wakes up in hospital”  – minus any underwear! What follows in more than a recovery of physical health but also a recovery of mental health, as Isobel comes to terms with her childhood, her life before tuberculosis and the possibility of new maturity.

Title: Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop

Author: Amy Witting

Publisher: Penguin Books, 1999



  1. I agree. We would have, possibly, had more books by her to enjoy. On the other hand, the books she did produce are wonderful so perhaps age helped make them so?

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