Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

“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.

‘My allowance.’

‘What allowance?’

‘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…

Thanks Gummie


Filed under Anderson Jessica, Fiction

23 responses to “Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

  1. whisperinggums

    Oh Guy, I’m so glad you liked this … not that I’m surprised because we both like expressive tight writing I think. This is a gorgeous review.

    I like the notion of leaving some memories on the “nether” side of the globe which is the opposite, in a way, of the popular/modern idea of getting it all out and confronting it. I reckon some things probably are best just put away and forgotten.

    • Gummie: Can’t thank you enough for this recommendation. This is an incredible book and I wouldn’t have read it without you. I thought the author’s (Nora’s) description of memory–which she made physical–was stunning, accurate and useful. And yes, some things are best on the nether side of the globe.

  2. It is a great review but I’m afraid it’s a depressing book. Isn’t it? I can get annoyed when I see people constantly write Hans Christian Anderson although it is Andersen in his case.
    I’m glad I starte dreading Aussie authors this year. This sounds like another great choice but I have to stick to the ones I already have.
    I think many people have a “nether” side of the globe – as you so aptly call it – in their minds. I agree with Gummie – it’s contrary to the trend to drag all out into the open but I sometimes wonder if “confronting it all” isn’t sometimes self-destructive. Food for thought.

    • Caroline: I didn’t find it depressing at all. There’s a sort of quiet triumph to Nora–perhaps it’s because she doesn’t dwell on the negative, so the bad things that happen fall away rather than stick. Even the way she made her stupid husband Colin a figure of fun works somehow, but it’s easy to see that a different type of person could dwell on that nether side of the globe, and wallow in the negative. While Nora mentions horrible “waste” several times (and it’s true), I didn’t ultimately come away with that impression of her life. I came away with the highlights and the wonderful people she met, the trends (she had several strong friendships with gay men), and the way she wasn’t ultimately crushed. There is some sort of horrific undercurrent running through the whole domestic life scene (meant to mention that to Gummie), but Nora has a tart sort of humour and she now knows how to deal with the nastier people in life in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. And while coming home might seem like defeat, there’s another sort of triumph in the way she learns, ultimately and finally, to love Australia and to come to a sort of peace with her relationships with her dead sister and mother.

      • Thanks for letting me know. This does sound very good indeed. I’ goinf to see if I can track it down as well.
        The Lady of Shalott is one of my favourite poems but it’s a bit sad, I just thought the book might be much more like that and I’m not in a cheerful state of mind at the moment.

        • I mentioned to Charles that when you go looking for a copy look under both spellings. I found some price differences.

          It would be fairly easy to miss the Lady of Shalott connection (apart from the title) as it’s not overdone. It’s not gloomy at all. Nora is a marvellous character, full of life and very witty. Her Aussie neighbours have her in this “old lady” box like some sort of new pet and she humours them more than anything else.

  3. This looks right up my street. Once again, my thanks to you for spreading the word!

  4. Now all I have to do is find a copy…

    • As an author, I think you’ll appreciate the craft behind the novel. I bought a couple of used copies for friends and found the price to be reasonable (around $1-2 and shipping). Her other books seem pricier and harder to find, but The Commandant comes out in kindle next month.

      When you look also try the spelling ANDERSEN as some sites have copies listed under that spelling. She seems to be categorised with the author of salacious bodice-rippers.

  5. This is one I’d like to try at some point – I’m just starting to make inroads on the Australian canon though, so there are many other classics I’ve yet to get to…

  6. I like novels which describe the strange work of memory, how we put things in boxes and try not to open some of them and visit others frequently.

    It’s tempting but the language sounds too difficult for me. And of course, there is no translation.

    • That’s unfortunate as I think it’s something that would appeal to you. This book made me think of the difficulties of biography. How do you nail down someone’s character?

  7. I am glad that I am one who got a copy! Not read yet, but am drawn to her “nether world” solution for obvious reasons. Thanks for not forgetting/giving up on me!

  8. It souds absolutely remarkable. It reminds me slightly of an 80 page novel, written oddly enough by an 80 year old first time author, that Will of Just William’s Luck put me on to. I’ll dig out what that was.

    Did you ever read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger?

    Anyway, I’m tracking down a copy of this. A definite must read.

  9. Moon Tiger is a tremendous novel. I’ve read almost everything written by Lively–not all–but almost.

    Let me know the title of the book if it leaps to mind.

  10. Found it, The New Perspective. Here’s a review from Just William’s Luck: http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/what-have-we-been-all-this-time.html It also made his 2010 end of year list.

    84 pages. I was off by a few.

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