Brett, Lily 1946-

views updated

Brett, Lily 1946-


Born 1946, in Germany; immigrated to Australia, 1948; married David Rankin (an artist); children: three. Religion: Jewish.


Home—New York, NY. Agent—Heather Schroder, ICM Talent, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.




Victorian Premier's award for poetry, 1987, for The Auschwitz Poems; National Steel award, 1992, for What God Wants.


The Auschwitz Poems, Scribe (Brunswick, Australia), 1986.

After the War: Poems, Melbourne University Press (Melbourne, Australia), 1990.

Things Could Be Worse, Melbourne University Press (Melbourne, Australia), 1990.

What God Wants (stories), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Australia), 1991.

Unintended Consequences (poems), Paper Bark Press (Sydney, Australia), 1992.

In Her Strapless Dresses (poems), Picador (Sydney, Australia), 1994.

Just like That (novel), Pan Macmillan (Sydney, Australia), 1994.

In Full View (essays), Pan Macmillan (Sydney, Australia), 1997.

Mud in My Tears, Picador (Sydney, Australia), 1997.

Too Many Men (novel), Picador (Sydney, Australia), 1999, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.

New York, Picador (Sydney, Australia), 2001.

Between Mexico and Poland, Picador (Sydney, Australia), 2002.

You Gotta Have Balls, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2006.


Lily Brett was born in a Polish Displaced Person's camp in Germany in 1946 and immigrated to Australia with her parents in the aftermath of World War II. She eventually moved to Manhattan in 1989, where she lives with her husband, artist David Rankin, and their children. Brett writes across genres, producing poetry, fiction, and essays, and much of her work is influenced by the postwar experiences of her childhood. Her first book of poetry, The Auschwitz Poems, won critical acclaim, as well as the Victorian Premier's award for poetry.

What God Wants is a collection of sixteen intertwined stories about middle-aged people, all children of Holocaust survivors, who live in Melbourne, Australia. In the Australian Book Review, George Papaellinas wrote of the characters in these stories: "Their meetings, their embraces and even their collisions, their struggles and cruelties, are just as clumsy, just as bruised or bruising, just as recognisable and, importantly, just as funny." The stories can all be read separately, but all are also part of the larger story of this community of people, in which everyone knows everyone else and no secret is kept for long. Brett combines pathos and humor in the telling. As Papaellinas wrote: "Brett is a serious comic. Her surgical bent, her dissection of superficially well-ordered, mundane suburban life and the pedestrians that make their way through it, is tempered by an eye for the absurd and for the plain funny." According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, the stories "explore layers of guilt and fear, and above all the need for belonging."

In Unintended Consequences, Brett presents poems exploring the heritage of the Holocaust and her and her parents' experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. One poem relates how Brett explains to a dentist who remarks on her bad teeth and tells her that she must not have had enough milk in childhood, that in Auschwitz, milk was not on the menu. In another, she describes the list of family members, killed in the camps, that her parents kept. Kevin Brophy wrote in the Australian Book Review: "We are never far from the past, and the past usually means her mother's past," and "there is the sense that these poems are written for survival—in the way that Blake, Dickinson, or Plath wrote."

In Her Strapless Dresses is another collection of poems, but fewer of these are about the Holocaust. Many of them explore Brett's childhood in Australia and other memories. Phil Brown wrote in the Australian Book Review: "The poems are never really black—because of her inherent optimism—but they are often sad."

In Brett's novel Just like That, Esther Zipler, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is an obituary writer for newspapers. She is in her forties, and filled with worries about the state of the world, about her parents' suffering during World War II, about her daughter and her daughter's terrible boyfriend, and about her friend Sonia's pregnancy. James Griffen wrote in the Australian Book Review: "There are no big upheavals. It's a comedy of manners that plugs into a very strong New York tradition" of food, affairs, and parties, but this comedy of manners is underlaid by reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust. Griffen commented: "It serves as a song of praise to the modern world in all its pathos, bathos, silliness, tragedy and heroism."

In Full View is a collection of essays about Brett's obsession with weight and thinness. "A frivolous subject, you might think, but you'd be wrong," wrote Marion Halligan in the Australian Book Review. The essays tell the story of Brett's struggle with weight and body image, and how her concerns with them grew out of her heritage as a daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Another ongoing theme in Brett's work is the differences between men and women, and how they react to challenging situations. Her novel Too Many Men follows the experiences of Ruth Rothwax, a successful New York business woman who takes her father, Edek, back to Poland so they can visit the concentration camp where he spent time as a child. Brett uses the trip as a way of contrasting Ruth's and Edek's attitudes, both toward the anti-Semitism that is still apparent in Poland, and the lingering memories of the atrocities of World War II. Where Ruth is vocal and stringent in her disapproval of much of what she sees, Edek is more accepting of a situation that has improved greatly since his childhood. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked: "The hardest effect to bring off in fiction is a vision that is at once tender, deeply comic, and yet aware of the ultimate sadness of life…. Brett has succeeded triumphantly."

With You Gotta Have Balls, Brett offers readers a sequel to Too Many Men, this time chronicling the romance between Edek and Zofia, the widow Edek meets during the trip to Poland with his daughter Ruth. Ruth is forced to witness her father's renewed love life when Zofia succeeds in obtaining a green card and follows Edek back to New York. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews called the book "light and life-affirming fare about letting go of worry and embracing uncertainty," and noted that it was "a faster, leaner work than Brett's previous effort."



Australian Book Review, October, 1991, George Papaellinas review of What God Wants, p. 45; August, 1992, Kevin Brophy, review of Unintended Consequences, p. 57; August, 1994, James Griffen, review of Just Like That, p. 15; November, 1994, Phil Brown, review of In Her Strapless Dresses, p. 54; October, 1997, review of In Full View, p. 10, review of Mud in My Tears, p. 50; February, 2001, review of New York, p. 16; December, 2002, review of Between Mexico and Poland, p. 11.

Australian Canadian Studies, 1993, vol. 11, issue 1-2, review of Unintended Consequences, pp. 172-180.

Booklist, April 1, 2006, Joanne Wilkinson, review of You Gotta Have Balls, p. 16.

Bookpage, August, 2001, review of Too Many Men, p. 6.

Bulletin with Newsweek, November 8, 2005, Caroline Baum, "Gilding the Lily" review of You Gotta Have Balls, p. 90.

Entertainment Weekly, June 30, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of You Gotta Have Balls, p. 165.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1993, review of What God Wants, p. 801; June 1, 2001, review of Too Many Men, p. 755; May 1, 2006, review of You Gotta Have Balls, p. 424.

Law Society Journal, April, 2004, Sonja Marsic, review of Between Mexico and Poland, p. 100.

Library Journal, August, 1993, Molly Abramowitz, review of What God Wants, p. 157; September 1, 2001, Yvette W. Olson, review of Too Many Men, p. 232.

Ms., January 28, 1994, review of What God Wants, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly, July 19, 1993, review of What God Wants, p. 236; July 30, 2001, review of Too Many Men, p. 59.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 18, 2002, review of Too Many Men, p. 6.


Lily Brett Home Page, (February 13, 2007).

About this article

Brett, Lily 1946-

Updated About content Print Article