Tag Archives: Australian fiction

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

“When people open their doors for their houses to be cleaned, they open themselves.”

The Newspaper or “weekly” is the nickname for a cleaning lady who works in so many houses in Claremont Street that she knows all of the gossip.  Apart from the lower-income flats, Weekly has worked in all the houses at some time or another. She’s a fixture, and like most fixtures, her habits and private life are all taken for granted by those who employ her.

When she went into the houses she saw what people were trying to do with their lives and she saw too what they did not try to do. Some things simply happened to them. The mess made by living did not bother her. People’s efforts to clear up their mess were touching, their dead flowers drooping in stained, treasured vases and crumbs left in the bread tin made her shake her head and feel sad, not because she had to throw away the flowers and clean out the tin. It was the picking of the flowers in the first place and the buying of the bread and bringing it home to eat, they were the symbols of their efforts to live. Weekly made great efforts herself and was not unaware of the efforts of others. She noticed everything there was to notice about people and their houses; she could not help it.

Weekly is a creature of habit, and she’s spent a lifetime of joyless toil cleaning houses while secretly gathering a nestegg. She dreams of owning a place in the country, a place of her own, with fruit trees, and that dream is so strong, it actually pains her to spend any money. She takes cast off clothes from her employers, lives rent-free in a sparsely furnished room exchange for cleaning services, and eats the most frugal diet possible. But it’s in cleaning, that “her mind found a freedom that might be quite unknown in any other kind of work.” 

The Newspaper of Claremont street

Weekly cleans one house after another, and while she knows “which wives didn’t want their husbands to come home for lunch; she heard sons snarling at their mothers and ungrateful daughters banging bedroom doors,” she only carries the benign gossip and “never spoke of the things that really mattered.” She knows everything there is to know about the people on Claremont Street. She sees people age, become ill, marriages go wrong, children misbehave and disappoint their parents. She’s seen all sorts of domestic tragedies over the last thirty years. Nothing surprises her, and nothing will stop her cleaning. She’s a steamroller of domestic industry:

She was used to people being in bath towels or in bed at all hours of the day. The intimate things which she could not help perceiving did not interest her much. If at the time of cleaning, various sexual or alcoholic activities of the householders were in the way, she simply cleaned round them. She was acquainted with, and quite unmoved by, their experiments with drugs and had tidied up on one occasion, quite calmly after a murder. 

On one level, Weekly would seem to be the low person on the Claremont Street totem pole. The shop girls make fun of her, and to the people who employ her, Weekly isn’t so much a person as a machine. “Everyone tried to get as much work from her as possible,” and yet her middle-class employers don’t want to be seen ‘less generous’ than the others on the street, so they care about the opinions of their neighbours, and treat Weekly accordingly.

Elizabeth Jolley’s novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, at 116 pages, is tightly written and peppered with flashes from Weekly’s past. Off-kilter memories laced with dark comedy pop up unbidden, and Weekly pushes them back down. She’d rather not think the death of her mother (“she simply refused to understand that motor traffic could not always stop for the pedestrian“) or about Victor, the brother she loved so much that she would have slaved for him. Gradually we learn, well sort of, what happened to Victor and why Weekly is ashamed of her role in his betrayal.

Weekly’s relationship with Victor goes a long way to explaining her reluctant relationship with Nastasya, a Russian emigré who dreams of the glories of her pampered past and demands that Weekly step up to fill the empty roles of servant, caretaker, banker, nurse, and general dogsbody. It’s through the tortured relationship between Weekly and Nastasya we see how people fall into familiar relationship grooves, and also how those who want to be pampered need someone to slave.  With Nastasya hanging around Weekly’s neck, will she still move to the country?

There were a few passages which described the raw countryside, and show the magnificence of Australia:

Black cockatoos left the tree tops in twos and threes and then in their numbers and came swirling in ever widening circles, screaming and calling in their flight. The shallow ravine of trees and the endless stretches of trees and scrub on either side of the piece of land seemed full of these birds. Their heads were round and determined and black fringes edged their wings and, as they flew round and through the trees, they brought to the place a quality of strangeness, of something unknown, as if they had some other knowledge, something to do with another kind of life.

There’s a macabre twist to this tale that is signature Elizabeth Jolley. I tried reading The Newspaper of Claremont  a few years ago, but gave up after a few pages, so thanks to Gummie for encouraging me to try this novel again.

My favourite novel from this author is Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, a truly hilarious tale.

Note: unwanted kittens are drowned in one passage .

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The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe

Australian Mena Calthorpe wrote just three novels in her lifetime; The Dyehouse was her first novel, and I’ll tag it a ‘social conscience’  novel. But while the novel centres on working life in a Sydney textile factory, it’s also about the trials of the people who work there: their poverty, loves, and struggles. So while we see the structure of the factory with its workers, and how humanity is sacrificed for profit, we also see the private lives of those workers beyond the dyehouse.

The Dyehouse

It’s 1956, and a very calm, prim Miss Merton arrives at the Southern Textiles Dye Works to apply for a job. The factory is run by Mr Renshaw, and when the novel opens, the biggest dilemmas facing the factory are the drop in production and the sudden popularity of nylon. Behind Mr Renshaw is the Chairman of Directors, the General Manager, and the Company Secretary who each approach the factory differently.  Through the plot we see the layers of management, upper, middle and all the way down to the workers who struggle with various problems, personal and professional.

One of Miss Merton’s tasks is to process the necessary forms in order to give the employees sick pay. The term “personal illness” has to be redefined

“Cuthbert says that personal illness could be the personal illness of wife or child. Sick-pay applies only to the personal illness of the employee.”

“I suppose he means Barney Monahan.” said Miss Merton.

“Oh, well,” said Renshaw, “we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Some of these blokes know a thing or two.”

“Yes.” Miss Merton pressed her lips together.

“Don’t need to take it to heart,” said Renshaw. “Just watch them for that ‘my personal illness ‘ angle, and the rest is up to them.”

Miss Merton sat tapping her pen on her desk.

“It seems heartless,” she said. “Wife sick. Everything at odds. And this form waiting for ‘due to my personal illness.’ There’s not much margin for the joys and tragedies in people’s lives, is there?”

Working at the dyehouse isn’t morally easy for Miss Merton, and Renshaw can tell that she disapproves of policies. To him she’s a “sentimentalist,” and if that means she sees that workers as part of a factory ‘family,’ then she’s guilty as charged. Miss Merton also observes Renshaw’s predatory behaviour towards the female factory workers. Patty, Renshaw’s flavour of the week, is foolish enough to believe Renshaw’s tin promises that he’ll marry her. Everyone else in the factory knows that Patty is being used, but she’s the last one to get it.  My favorite character is Oliver, a man who sees the bigger picture.

Author Mena Calthorpe was a communist and worked in a textile factory, so both her beliefs and her experiences are engaged here. Over the course of a year, we see how the factory runs and the lives of a handful of characters: Hughie Marshall “Leading Hand on the vats.” Hughie is a stellar worker but lacks credentials, and Renshaw intends to replace him in spite of the devotion he’s shown to the company. Then there’s Patty who lives with her invalid mother, a young woman who doesn’t need the trouble that a relationship with Renshaw will bring. We also follow the story of Barney, whose youthful enthusiasm is lost in the “treadmill” of work. It’s easy to tell the author’s politics here, but she doesn’t sacrifice characterization for message, and that’s what makes The Dyehouse an engaging read.

For some reason, Australia in the 50s holds a special fascination.

Lisa’s review

Gummie’s review

Review copy

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Our Tiny, Useless Hearts: Toni Jordan

“You should be locked up.”

Toni Jordan’s novel Our Tiny Useless Hearts is a frenetic domestic farce which focuses on the ugly breakup between Caroline and her husband Henry. The entire debacle is monitored and commented upon by Caroline’s younger divorced sister, Janice. As Caroline and Henry’s marriage spectacularly combusts, Janice recalls how her mother was disappointed in Caroline’s choice:

this big, blond rugby player with thighs like legs of ham and sharp blue eyes and a degree in electrical engineering who drove a fourth-hand red BMW with enough dents to make it ironic instead of pretentious. 

Caroline and Henry’s marriage is now 15 years old, and Henry is soft, flabby, and “the blond hair is mostly a memory.” Our first sight of Henry is his clumsy attempt to break it to his two daughters that he’s running off with their teacher, Martha.

“Marriage, girls, is hard time, that’s what it is. Monogamy, monotony. Mangoes. They sound the same, right? That’s no coincidence.”

“Henry,” I say.

“Seeing the same face every morning, every single morning, day in, day bleeding out. If I took a sawn-off shotgun down to the 7-eleven and waved it in Raju’s face and spent the contents of the cash drawer on crack and hookers I’d get less than fifteen years.”

We hope, of course, that real fathers don’t talk quite that way to their children, but that should give the reader a sense of the over-the-top quality of this book. It’s a farce. As a play, this would probably sit better, but since it’s a book, there are times when the comedy is too much.

Our tiny useless hearts

Henry leaves for Noosa with his paramour, and wife Caroline (after mutilating Henry’s trousers) follows in hot pursuit. Meanwhile annoying neighbours Lesley and Craig jump into the action with their opinions. Sometime in the middle of the night, Craig sneaks into bed with Caroline, only to find her sister instead. And just at that moment, Janice’s ex shows up. ….

From the plot description, you should be able to see what I mean about this making a good play: the setting (a house) and just a handful of characters. The domestic farce and over the top speeches became too much at times, although there were some good comic moments. But far more interesting than the comedy are the thoughtful moments from Janice, and it’s in these sentences that we see the author’s quieter, more reflective voice:

And then it’s all over Henry’s face, the expectations of how middle age would unfurl. How much money he imagines he’d have, how he thought he’d spend his free time, the places he’s always wanted to see. Perhaps he dreamed of a cycling holiday around France or a handicap under thirty. As I watch, Henry’s best imagining float before him in that tiny space between an inhalation and an exhalation. How tenuous our plans are. How heavily we rest on something so gossamer-thin. 

Lisa’s review

Review copy

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The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

“Once I wrote to an asylum to take me in.”

The Puzzleheaded Girl from Christina Stead is a collection of four novellas, all of which explore that tangled, complicated relationships between men and women. Stead seems to aks if one gender will ever understand the other, and the resounding answer is  …. NO. The first novella in the collection, The Puzzle-Headed Girl is the story of a man, Debrett, an idealist who employs a young woman named Honor Lawrence as a filing clerk. He offers the young woman a job out of pity as she obviously needs money and is poorly dressed. Over a number of years, Honor drifts in and out of Debrett’s life, always with some strange story, sometimes cadging meals or money. Debrett, “a married bachelor,” thinks she has “principles” and admires her, even as he scripts her life with wrappings of romanticism, but as she repeatedly inserts herself into his life, it becomes clear that Honor is unbalanced. Debrett rather dimly asks himself,“Was she just a child; or a free soul?”

For its tone and pacing, The Puzzle-Headed Girl reminded me of A Little Tea, A Little Chat although of course the subject matter is entirely different.  In both books, Christina Stead shows the separate worlds of men and women. Particularly enjoyable is the idea that a lower-level of craziness can pass for quirks or principles in the young (or wealthy).

The puzzleheaded Girl

The Dianas is the tale of Lydia a rather giddy young woman who’s unleashed in Paris. We first see her in a hotel juggling dates with various men and contemplating marrying a Frenchman. While she says she can’t make up her mind which man to go out with that evening, she spies Russell, “someone she recognized, a middle-aged American with a half-bald sandy head and fat sandy face, an upstate professor of psychology,” a friend of her mother’s. Lydia decides to torture and humiliate Russell. It’s fairly easy to see Russell as Lydia’s victim. Perhaps Lydia is giving Russell a taste of his own medicine, or perhaps she’s just practicing on someone she can easily outclass.

The third novella, The Rightangled Creek, is quite different from the rest of the stories: it’s the tale of a ramshackle cottage which is inhabited by a number of couples over the course of a few years. When the story opens, Sam Parsons returns to America and visits Laban and Ruth Davies, a couple he met in Paris. Laban is a writer and a raging alcoholic and the idea of stashing him in the cottage out in the middle of nowhere is essentially to ensure that he will stay dry.

They had been lodging in artists’ colony but spotted this farm and rented it for $12  a month. Laban is writing a book, “a history of European culture,” drinking three or four pots of coffee a day while Ruth grows their food. They invite Sam and his wife Clare to join them. The Davies’ plan is for Laban’s book to sell which will enable them to buy the farm and send their son, Frankie to Princeton.

Ruth is mother, wife, caretaker, nurse,  housekeeper, jailer and general drudge to her husband Laban, and while she realizes his weakness when it comes to alcohol, she will go to any lengths, sacrifice everything, for this man.

“We save money here, I do everything,” she said in her warm round voice in which there was a strident note.

Over the course of the novella, some past incidents reveal how insane Ruth’s relationship is with Laban.

The fourth novella, Girl From the Beach, is the story of a man named George, a womaniser who blames all of the women in his life for his actions. Again his rants led me back to the character of Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat. Robert Grant and George are two slightly different versions of the same man. George has a number of ex-wives, a “swarm of little-girl gadflies.” And it’s not easy to nail down how many ex-wives there are but he admits to “three in this country.”

“I wanted to get married. I fell in love with each; and each one,” he said, getting red and shouting, “did not love me; or only as children love. Marriage was an outing. Papa would buy the candy and the ride on the loop-the-loops. I can pay. Don’t worry about my health.”

And:

American girls are bloodthirsty. Their honour is in sucking a man dry; then they throw out the corpse. Why, I have known women here who destroy a man’s happiness and faith in himself, ruin his career, divorce him, turn his children against him, blacken his name to all his friends, suck him dry, and then marry him again to show they own him.

And, of course when George rants about the venal nature of women, he’s trying to persuade another victim to take a trip down the aisle. George eventually meets another woman, Linda who seems to be a prototype of Lydia in The Dianas.

Putting all four novellas together and examining them as a whole, I was struck by the significance of a few things. 1) Paris appears in all four novellas. Stead uses Paris rather as Forster used Italy: people go wild there. Take the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and in Stead’s novels it becomes “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.”

Oh, Paris is an obsession; I feel it like paprika. And then the men fluttering round, so aimless and asking you to decide. 

Male-female relationships dominant here, and it isn’t pretty. One character in The Puzzleheaded Girl brags about his spouse: “My wife’s as good as two hired men”–shades of the much abused Ruth in The Rightangled Creek. I was also struck by the reoccurring character of  Robert (A Little Tea, A Little Chat) George (Girl From the Beach) and even, if we stretch it, Laban (The Rightangled Creek)–men who want the women in their lives to be all aspects of the feminine ideal while they are … well …dickheads.

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A Little Tea, A Little Chat: Christina Stead

“He had suffered too much from women.”

In Christina Stead’s comic novel,  A Little Tea, A Little Chat Robert Grant, a middle-aged businessman, a dealer in cotton, is a despicable, opportunistic predatory male who is always on the lookout for the next sexual encounter. This bombastic braggart spends most of his time scoping out likely women he can invite up to his New York apartment for the euphemistic “a little tea, a little chat.”

The novel opens in 1941, with an introduction of Grant and his repulsive male circle of friends, all “birds of prey” and “each of them loved money and lechery, above all,” so between these men, stories of ripping off widows or seducing them makes good cocktail talk. It’s hard to say which of these men is the most revolting, but the novel concentrates on the philandering career of Grant, and how he subsequently meets his match.

A little tea a little chat

Robert Grant isn’t an interesting man. He’s shallow and “had no hobbies. He could not read more than a few consecutive sentences in any book or newspaper unless they referred immediately to himself or his interests.” Grant’s relentless, pitiless modus operandi geared towards women is the compelling fascination here. He’s a pig, picking up women, stringing them along with false promises, assessing whether or not they’re worth bedding, buying them the cheapest meals possible. and then dumping them when he’s bored or if thing gets complicated.

He had little pleasure out of his real hobby, libertinage; and he gave none. Women fell away from him, but he did not know why; and he retained only the venal.

He claims to be afraid of women, irreparably damaged by a femme fatale in his past. He poses as a free thinker, a “bit of a Marxist,” but considers a woman goes too far when she dances with a “negro fellow.” He’s learned to pose as a Leftie and has convinced himself that he really is one. Again this is just a role for sexual benefit.  Leftist women seem to want to give it away free.

usually his radicalism made his girls trustful and either cheap or for nothing: a radical girl should not take money for love. 

Grant is a practiced seducer who always plays the victim to his prey. Here he is on his wife:

That ‘ooman in Boston, my wife, is no good to me. Never loved me. Now when it’s too late, she tries to make me come back. Just like Barb. It’s a type-stupid. A woman like you could keep a man. I’m looking for an oasis in my desert, a rose on a blasted heath. 

And here he is on what he’s looking for in a woman:

I’m looking for romance. My heart needs a home, a cradle, eh? I’ve used myself up, played too hard. Now I need a woman, a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, a friend. That’s what that cow in Boston doesn’t realize. I need a mother now. She could have me back. But it’s too late now.

Discarding woman as casually and frequently as if they were paper underwear, he finally runs into a woman called Barbara Kent–a woman he eventually nicknames  The Blondine. At first she seems a little drab, no big deal, but he becomes intrigued even though he knows “she’s possessive, she’s greedy, she is from the Land of Grab.” Barbara’s friend, Paula (another of Grant’s conquests) calls Barbara a “tramp.”

She got sick of men so soon. I don’t think she really cares for them. She’s not a gold-digger at heart, but she finished up gold-digging. She has too good a head for figures. She can always calculate the chances. What’s the use of marrying somebody with flat feet, some jerk, and so dying of old age at thirty?

In this darkly, cruelly funny novel, we see Grant perplexed by the languid Barbara, who’s really every bit as boring as he is, and as she slips his grasp, he becomes obsessed with her. Setting, at no small expense, private detectives on her trail, sightings of Barbara with various men serve to fuel his obsession, and eventually, comically, he discovers, or thinks he discovers, Barbara’s secret life.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is an intense character study of the male predator. After a certain point in the novel, we don’t really learn anything new about Robert, his methods or his tastes, but nonetheless, we follow him through his obsession with Barbara Kent. Grant is a bore, and like most bores, he won’t shut up, has the same speeches, and the same beliefs which he trots out in company. Grant’s speech about how he’s been done wrong by women appears repeatedly, for example, although it’s modified at times to fit his audience. At one point, for example, he has an idea for a book, called All I Want is a Woman, and in another scene he meets a woman “just back from Reno,” who wants to write a thinly veiled novel about her marriage. This meeting morphs into a duel for attention as Grant and the woman wax on about their respective experiences. Both egomaniacs, neither listens to the other. Some readers may be disappointed in the repetitiveness of Grant’s behaviour, but Grant’s boring repetitiveness and insatiable rapaciousness is all part of his shtick.

This is not a perfect novel, and at times Grant’s constant rants can be bludgeoning. But in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book thoroughly for its portrayal of a type who finally meets his match.

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A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story.  A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime.  He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’

ocean-of-story

A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.”  How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?

Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.

This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …

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Christine Stead Week: November 14-20, 2016

Lisa at ANZLITLOVERS organised a week honouring Christina Stead. I’m swamped at the moment, but I ordered Ocean of Story: the Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead. Since it’s OOP, there wasn’t much information out there, but my copy arrived and here’s the contents of this 552 page book:

ocean-of-story

1: The Early Years: Australia

The Old School

The Milk Run

A Little Demon

2: Apprentice Writer

A Night in the Indian Ocean

La Toussaint

O, If I Could But Shiver!

About the House

Uncle Morgan at the Nats

3: Pre-War Europe

The Azhdanov Sailors

Private Matters

Lost American

4: New York

Life is Difficult

A Harmless Affair

I Live in You

My Friend, Lafe Tilly

An Iced Cake with Cherries

UNO

The Fathers

5: Post War Europe

The Captains’ House

Yac, Yac

The Hotel-Keeper’s Story

A Household

The Woman in the Bed

The Boy

Trains

6: England

Street Idyll

1954: Days of the Roomers

A Routine

Accents

7: Biographical and Autobiographical

A Waker and a Dreamer

A Writer’s Friends

Les Amoureux

Another View of the Homestead

Did it Sell?

The Magic Woman and Other Stories

Afterword from R. G. Geering, literary executor and life-long friend.

This post is created for anyone else out there interested in the contents of this book. My review of The Little Hotel is here.

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The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.

the-other-side-of-the-world

The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy

 

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The Strays: Emily Bitto

“The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole.”

The Strays of the title in the debut novel from Australian novelist Emily Bitto are a group of people who gather around artist Evan Trentham, his independently wealthy wife, Helena, and their three daughters: Bea, Eva and Heloise. While most of ‘the strays’ are artists, Eva’s best friend, Lily joins the group, first at age 8 just for companionship, but then as a housemate when her family circumstances change.

The strays

This is Melbourne in the 1930s, but the novel opens in 1985 with Lily, an art lecturer, now in middle age, divorced, remarried and with a daughter. We know that something went horribly wrong at the Trentham home and that whatever happened spilt the ties between Lily, Eva and her family. So it’s with a sense of impending doom that we read on…

Lily is an only child from a home that seems boringly normal when compared to the Trenthams’ home — a huge splendid house surrounded by ramshackle, yet glorious gardens–which has been in Helena’s “old money” family for three generations.

That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of the mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place.

Lily’s home is quiet, predictable and stable. Meals are served at the same time every day, but life with the Trenthams is anything but predictable. At first Lily begins visiting Eva’s home after school, and these visits morph into weekend stays.

Besotted as I already was with Eva, that first visit to the Trentham home threw my sense of my own life off balance. I felt as though my home, a semi-detached bungalow we had recently moved into, had shrunk since morning, and our yard was a shoebox sown with only those plants that refused the smallest taint of wildness, even in their names: sweet William, primrose, baby’s breath.

Eventually, Lily moves in with the Trenthams becoming almost a fourth daughter (there’s a great comment made by Helena that Lily is no trouble as she barely notices she’s there), but by the time Lily moves in, it’s not just the Trenthams living there–the house has become an artist colony for the ‘Melbourne Modern Art Group.’ While the young artists pose for one another, have sexual relationships, smoke pot and continue to work, the flimsy parental structure barely held in place begins to fall away. There are rumbling noises from the world outside of the colony: the vice squad, obscenity charges, and reviews in the newspapers. The four young girls, approaching adolescence are left, disastrously, to their own devices.

Through Lily’s first person narrative, Emily Bitto captures the intense closeness of the friendship between Eva and Lily, and how, as sexuality enters the picture, secrets divide the girls. There’s occasionally an edge of hysteria to the tale which echoes the excitement felt by the four girls as they spy on the adults, swig leftover alcohol and steal joints left carelessly by the ‘adults’ they live with.

It’s the beauty of Bitto’s remarkably visual writing that remains with this reader, and many scenes recall the sharpness of Lily’s memory of those years.

The room itself was cluttered with paint tins, brushes and books, and reeked of tobacco and turpentine. There was a green chaise longue behind the door, its horsehair stuffing erupting through a hole. A huge half-finished painting stood against the back wall.

While this is essentially a coming-of-age story, the novel asks some deeper questions: are artists allowed some sort of ‘pass’ for their behaviour? Can they be judged by the same standards as non-artists? Where do family and responsibility fit into an artist’s life? And I was particularly intrigued by Helena, a substantial artist in her own right.

I could look at a corner of a cloudy sky in one of her canvases, and it was if I was peering through a chink in a wall from a distance, with little revealed, but with three steps could put my eye up to the chink and see the whole panorama revealed. Helena’s images allowed you to see what was outside their compact frames, almost by the very fact of their occlusion. They invited the viewer to peer through the window of their canvas and watch the scene expand.

There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of the novel, but upon reflection, for this reader, that feeling seems to be fermenting in Lily’s role as the scapegoat for the lack of parental responsibility. Almost 50 years have passed since Lily left the Trentham circle, and yet she steps back into the milieu and her role as family scapegoat is shoved upon her once more. But is it a role she can ever abandon? She hints at writing a memoir which would perhaps shed a different light on that period, and yet… she can’t commit to the project–perhaps silently confirming that everyone’s settled opinion is best left unchallenged. To expose the truth would betray those whose opinions and acceptance matter.

(The novel is “inspired by stories of the Melbourne art world in the 1930s and 1940s.”)

Review copy

For other reviews: Gummie and Lisa

 

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Filed under Bitto Emily, Fiction

To the Islands: Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow’s novel To The Islands takes a look at the corrosive impact of colonialism through, aging, bitter missionary, Stephen Heriot, who has spent decades managing a Christian mission for ‘Indigent people’–the indigent people in this instance being Aborigines. When the novel opens, Heriot wakes up in his corrugated iron hut with its grass thatched roof. His books, detritus of his education and a reminder of his long distance past, are literally falling apart.

On the shelves of the rough bookcase, Heriot’s learning was mouldering away, in Oxford Books of this and that, and old-fashioned dictionaries, all showing more or less the visitations of insects and mildew.

There’s a symbolic significance to the books, for their decay matches Heriot’s decline. Physically, he’s aged and no longer accomplish the things he used to do, while mentally, he’s bitter, and he’s lost his sense of purpose. His wife died at the mission decades earlier, and now he’s facing the thought that he wasted his life. There’s the implicit idea that this once powerful man is in shambles. Looking in his broken mirror, “he saw himself as a great red cliff, rising from the rocks of his own ruin.”

How does a man grow old who has made no investment in the future, without wife or child, without refuge for his heart beyond the work that becomes too much for him?

Most of the other white men on the mission, in this “goldfish-bowl of existence,” are looking forward to Heriot leaving, and some think he’s gone “troppo.”  In many ways, Heriot is an embarrassment because he represents the old ways of handling the aborigines, and everyone would rather forget the past. While one character defends Heriot, placing him in the context of his times, Father Way says, ” a man who goes round spreading civilization with a stock whip gets no admiration from me.”   Heriot has requested a replacement from the regional council, but he receives a letter saying that he must remain as there is as yet no suitable candidate. And this brings in yet another idea–that Heriot, in his youth, had enough fervor, sense of purpose, or belief in his ‘mission,’ and that he was willing to sacrifice his entire life for what he believed in. Yet there’s no one to replace him; no one else has that sense of commitment.

to the islands

What drives people to leave their homes and take jobs in the remote area of Australia under such harsh, unforgiving conditions? Well religion explains some of it but there’s a also an excellent nurse who failed medical school; she’s “perhaps a fanatic of sorts, like a nun,” and a young teacher who “never intended to be involved. But the country had taken him in.” Bottom line these white workers are all driven by something to stay at the mission, but the reasons Heriot came to the mission are now absent. He’s been there too long. He’s ill and he suspects he’s dying.

Stow gives us a strong sense of life at the mission –both good and bad (with its pervasive attitudes towards the aborigines as ‘childlike’ or indigent).  A crisis erupts with the arrival of Rex, a man Heriot loathes, who’s a subversive influence on some of the younger residents of the mission. This beautifully written novel tackles huge themes of Shakespearean proportions through the story of the bitter aging missionary and his relationship with Rex. The mission has been existence for decades, and while the older residents seem more comfortable with the “indigents’ allowance,” there’s the idea, running under the surface of the story, that this system is inherently unhealthy, unproductive, and corrosive for all involved. With Rex’s unsettling presence, the established order of life at the mission is challenged.

Heriot watched the old women, across the grass at the meathouse, and thought of misery and hopelessness, of the wretched tribe of indigents. But it is their choice, their own choice…

Randolph Stow published  To the Islands when he was 22 years old. He’d worked for a period at an Anglican-run mission, and in the preface of my copy, he explains some of the changes he made from the original edition. Although the story addresses the cost of colonialism and the inherent wisdom of supporting a native population on an undignified subsistence way of life,  this isn’t a story about race as much as it’s a tragic tale of how we battle ourselves and our impulses.

Review copy.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Stow Randolph