I have finally read Jessica Anderson’s final novel, One of the wattle birds, which has been sitting in my beside cabinet since my parents gave it to me in 1998! Never let it be said that I don’t read books given to me – though, on reflection, I’d prefer you didn’t hold me to that! I have many many books in my TBR pile and most of them are not in the bedside cabinet. For a start, they wouldn’t fit. Anderson, though, has stayed there because she really was high priority, as I do like her. What finally prompted me to read this novel was Lisa Hill (ANZLitLovers) who recently reviewed Anderson’s penultimate novel, Taking shelter. She suggested that we swap books, when I’d read mine. When I suggested that it might take me some time, she sneakily said, “I’ll send mine up to you and then you will feel guilty if you don’t do it.” That was mean, don’t you think?
And so, being the responsible person that I am, I read One of the wattle birds and am glad of that little nudge (but don’t tell Lisa!). It is a deceptively simple book. When I started reading it, I wondered whether I was really interested in the first-person story of a 19-year-old female university student and her boyfriend. I thought I knew what it would be about, but how wrong I was. Set in Sydney, it describes three days in the life of the narrator, Cecily Ambruss, the only child of a single-parent family. Cecily’s mother, we discover, had died of breast cancer the previous year while Cecily was overseas with her boyfriend, Wil, and two other couples. Not surprisingly, Cecily is grieving deeply. Her grief is not helped by her inability to understand two things: why did her mother let her go overseas without telling her about the terminal illness and, what’s more, refuse to let her be called back, even for the funeral; and why did her (unmarried) mother stipulate that Cec must marry before she can inherit. Interesting, n’est-ce pas?
The three days over which the story takes place happen to be part of stu-vac, but while Wil – good, decent, conscientious law-student Wil – is taking his study seriously, arts student Cec is distracted. She cannot get her questions out of her mind. She has given up bothering Wil about them as he’s tired of her talking about her mother. And yet, grief is like that, particularly grief after unexpected deaths. You talk and mull, and mull and talk, over and over and over.
This brings me to the birds. There is, of course, the wattle bird. Cec calls it the DOIK*, for its sound, or “no-comment bird”, because it seems to be drowned out by other birds, reflecting, presumably, Cec’s feeling of inconsequence. In another reference to birds, Cec says :
I feel like one of those raggedy birds you see trying to feed their remorseless young. And among the gaping beaks, that one gapes widest. And among the chorus of cheeps, that one cheeps loudest.
The beaks and cheeps are the insistent questions that the bird tries to quieten with answers she’s gathered from others, such as her mother’s friends, her uncle and aunt, and even her counsellor. But they don’t satisfy, so she keeps searching – and eventually comes to her father, a man who had professed to have no interest in her and whom, therefore, she had long ago decided she didn’t want to meet.
Alongside this search for answers, Cec does do the occasional study – and what she’s studying is Malory’s story of King Arthur which is, appropriately enough, a quest story. But, it raises other issues for Cec too, such as how much magic versus Arthur’s “own hands” played in his achievements. I suspect this has something to do with Cec learning that not everything has a clear, logical answer.
While all this is interesting, much of the delight in reading the novel comes from the interactions between characters. They are, generally, exquisite. The often prickly Cec has wonderful exchanges, for example, with her Aunt-by-marriage Gail, her Gran, and her father who tries his best to help her see where her mother may have been coming from. These characters aren’t paragons, but neither are they malign. They are, simply, human. My only quibble with Anderson’s characterisation is that Cec and her friends – all around 19 years old I assume – seem at times a little improbable. How many 19-year-olds – particularly university students – talk about mortgages and the like?
Anyhow, by now you must be wondering about Cec’s mother. Without spoiling anything, there’s nothing to suggest they had a difficult relationship – and the answers to Cec’s questions are probably pretty mundane. The point of the novel is, in other words, not so much Cec’s relationship with her mother but her coming to terms with her grief, her identity, and her relationship with Wil.
This novel is not easily categorised. Part quest, part comedy-of-manners, part family drama, it has some laugh out-loud moments as well as reflective ones. It explores many of the themes common to Anderson’s work. One is money and power. Cec’s family has money – “fruit and veg have been good for us” – and money is used both subtly and not so, as a means of control. Another is deceit and concealment. As the novel progresses, Cec starts to tell Will less and less. At first she justifies it because it’s all too complicated to explain – and he does tend to brush her emotional concerns off – but, by the third day, there are many things she doesn’t tell him. “I foresee no end to the things I won’t tell Wil”, she says. And another, as the surprising last paragraph makes clear, has to do with the act of creation or, perhaps more correctly, with living life creatively.
One of the wattle birds is a tight, cleverly conceived “concoction” that makes, I’d say, a fitting conclusion to Anderson’s literary life. Has anyone else read it?
One of the wattle birds
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1994
Cover design: Joanna Hunt
*A not very tuneful bird. We have a resident Red Wattlebird in the tree outside our bedroom. It squawks us awake every morning.