“On one of the little leggy tables stands a vase of yellow daisies. The vase is too big for them, and they have slipped down to water level with their poor little faces up-raised, like drowning people crying for help. But all the same, someone has taken the trouble to put them there.”
When I wrote by Best-of-2011 list, my Aussie mate, Gummie mentioned that she hoped I’d have a Best Australian category in my Best of 2012 list. It seemed to be a very reasonable request. This led me to Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, a book I saw mentioned on Gummie’s blog. Why did I pick this Australian book over many others I have on my shelf? No easy answer to that one. Perhaps the selection was due partly to my annoyance at finding Anderson’s name mis-spelt as Andersen on several book sites. Whatever motivated me, I read the book and I am predicting that this one will make my Best-of-2012 list. In fact I can’t imagine reading an Australian book that surpasses this one.
At just a slim, yet dense, 141 pages, author Jessica Anderson distills down the life of one woman, Nora Porteous, into its most salient moments. Nora, now an elderly woman, returns home to Australia after an absence of many decades spent in England. Her childhood home, although empty, is essentially the same, but the neighbours–the faces from the past–are gone. As a young woman, Nora couldn’t wait to escape her home, and although she’s had her share of difficulties, she never wanted to return. After the horrors of a stifling marriage, she chose independence over security, but now at the end of her life, circumstances have brought her back to Australia, back to her now-empty childhood home and to the bitter-sweet memories which form the narrative of her life.
The novel begins with Nora’s arrival:
I arrive at the house wearing a suit-greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them in the car, but I don’t know that yet.
Stepping inside the house, Nora recalls her departure all those years ago, “running down the path to the yellow taxi,” waving goodbye to her mother and sister, Grace, while thinking “Thank heaven it’s over.” But now she’s back, on the last stretch of her life, back to the place she thought she’d never see again. The novel goes back and forth between Nora’s memories and her present as she adjusts to her new-old life, and as her memories unfold we learn about Nora’s past. Mostly this is a novel about the complexities of memory–the things we choose to remember, the things we choose to forget and the narrative formed by these connecting memories. Some years disappear without a trace–memories melt into others, and then some memories are so bright and detailed, the distance of 10, 20, or 30 years seems nothing. Since the novel is written through Nora’s memories, the names she mentions don’t immediately fit into the frame, but gradually we learn about the important phases of Nora’s episodic life. She mentions “the household at number six” and a series of names (Hilda, Fred and Liza) of those who lived there, but something has gone wrong. The household “exploded” and Nora no longer has the sustaining friendships of those she lived with in London.
Nora’s life can be described by its distinct phases: the longing to leave home, a drab unhappy marriage, a career in England, and then old age. Her teenage years included ideas of romanticism and escape from home, but the ‘escape’ brought her only to a different sort of prison–life with her husband, lawyer, Colin and her bête noire, Una, her disapproving mother-in-law. During their peculiar marriage, Colin steadily wears away any confidence Nora has, reminding her that she’s “frigid,” and a disappointment. Gradually Nora drifts away from the lie that she’s happily married, even as she is attracted to the bohemian atmosphere generated by a group of artists. Here’s Nora asking her stuffy husband for an allowance:
Whether my submissiveness is ingrained or was implanted I do not know. I only know that all open aggression on my part, in whatever field, has always led me to sorrow and retreat. But beneath my renewed submission a sour rebellion lay. I was told there was no money for fares to the city. ‘We can think ourselves lucky,’ said Colin, ‘to have a roof over our heads, and food to eat.’
‘And besides,’ said Una, ‘when our local shops are having such a thin time, it’s them we should deal off, and not go traipsing into town all the time.’
I didn’t have a penny. I would certainly have tried to fiddle the housekeeping money, only, Colin now gave it to Nora Porteous.
‘It’s Mum’s house, after all.’
‘Yes, and I am sure Nora wouldn’t begrudge me handling the money in my own house.’
I asked for a small allowance, and Colin said he would think about it. A fortnight later I asked if he had thought about it.
‘Thought about what?’ he said to his shaving mirror.
‘You must remember.’
‘Must I?’ he was inclined to be humorous. ‘Well I don’t’
I went back to the beginning and made my request again. When I had finished he pulled his mouth awry to tauten the skin under the blade. A minute passed in silence except for the scrape of the razor. Then he leaned forward and looked intently into his own eyes.
‘But why bring that up when I am shaving?’
He was shaving, he was reading the newspaper, he was just about to turn on the wireless, he had to go out and mow the lawn, he must get his eight hours sleep.
‘Then when can we discuss it?’ I cried at last.
‘One day soon, don’t worry.’
But when I asked again, ‘one day soon’, he sighed heavily, folded his arms, and raised his eyes to the ceiling. In that attitude, he heard me out, and then rose and left the room without a word in reply. I lost my head, and followed him, and threw myself against his silence, railing.
‘If you’ll excuse me saying so,’ said Una Porteous, ‘you don’t know how to handle a man.’
Reduced to stealing coins from Colin’s pockets (he refuses to give her a penny of her own), she defiantly develops some significant friendships. Nora’s modest freedoms from surveillance are hard-won, and in some ways surprisingly meagre.
While Nora is a flawed human being, she is also genuinely delightful, and with Anderson’s skillful prose, we see not only Nora’s development and adventures, but also her quirky world view. Now in old age, she’s learned a few lessons that serve her well. For example, she recognises the patterns of her life and its “vile wastage” and somewhat uncomfortably, she’s now temporarily at the mercy of housekeeper Lyn Wilmot, a woman who “disowns her arrow as soon as it reaches her mark” much the same as Una Porteous. Nora tartly notes:
It really is too bad that I should be afflicted with this reincarnation of Una Porteous.
But with the wisdom of age, Nora has learned to manage the Lyn Wilmots and the Unas of this world.
And then there are her memories and her past:
likened to a globe suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side on which my marriage has left its multitude of images. This globe is as small as my forehead. Yet so huge that its surface is inscribed with thousands, no millions of images. It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick. The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches now and again. Only I like to manipulate the globe myself. I don’t like those accidental flicks. In fact, there are some I positively dread, and if I see one of these coming, I rush to forestall it, forcing the globe to steadiness so that once more it faces the right way. I have become so expert at this, so watchful and quick, that there is always a nether side to my globe, and on that side flickers and drifts my one-time husband–and, I have often thought, a very good place for him too.
Nora has memories that are extremely painful, so they remain on the “nether” side of her memory–the “globe” she has learned to control. By reducing Colin, an insufferable cold domestic tyrant of a husband, to a figure of fun, a great source of entertaining stories for friends, Nora effectively diminishes his impact on her and renders him impotent by making him a comical figure. At the same time, Nora remembers some of her own less than admirable behaviour while noting that as for Colin, “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored with laughter that he will never be retrieved.” As the novel develops, we see that some memories are best left on the “nether” side of the “globe,” for to conjure them forth can be a devastating experience.
The Tirra Lirra of the title crops up early in the novel when Nora picks up an ancient book of poetry, and she still finds the marker left on an oft-read page that includes the lines from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. It’s impossible to miss the significance of the title as Nora can be compared to The Lady of Shalott, and while the two share some commonalities, Anderson never overworks the reference. Both The Lady of Shalott and Nora wait for life to happen, both spend their time on embroidery, and both of them have romantic notions. We know, of course, what happened to The Lady of Shalott, and if you wish to discover more of Nora’s elegiac yet ultimately triumphant reflections of life by reading Tirra Lirra by the River, a delightful, rich reading experience awaits…