Jessica Anderson, One of the wattle birds (Review)

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?

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

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?

Jessica Anderson
One of the wattle birds
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1994
Cover design: Joanna Hunt
ISBN: 9780140240320

*A not very tuneful bird. We have a resident Red Wattlebird in the tree outside our bedroom. It squawks us awake every morning.

36 thoughts on “Jessica Anderson, One of the wattle birds (Review)

  1. Years ago – the late 1980s – I did a kind of brush-up German language course at Sydney’s Goethe-Institut over a very summery January. In order to introduce language Studies (French/German) into the junior school where I was then teaching English and History. One of the Goethe class-members lived in the same apartment building as Jessica Anderson – often spoke to her. I can’t quite recall now whether it was that acquaintanceship which prompted me to read Tirra Lirra by the River then or if I had previously read it. But I do remember being impressed. Thank-you for this latest review.

    • Oh good for you Guy … An Anderson binge! I’d love to know what you think when you get to it. Overnight I was thinking that maybe the wattle bird has another meaning too reflecting her relationship with her boyfriend – her creativity and emotion versus his focus on detail, practicality, reason.

        • Me too, Guy … Interesting how some find a book they love then read everything by that author. There’s an appeal to that, to getting a great overview of the author’s oeuvre but I tend to be pulled in too many – do I really mean ” too many” – directions.

  2. No. But I shall. Just as soon as I can tear myself away from trying to promote my own book. Thought you’d appreciate this, Sue: Marrickville Library sent me an email this-morning at 8.30 to say they didn’t have enough bookings for my talk – scheduled for 10, and to which I turned up at 9.30, as I always give ’em half-an-hour. Having to commute there, I had to leave home at 8:15 to ensure the two buses connected. You may imagine my happiness at turning up to be met with that news. As I looked around, I wondered why in the name of all the gods they asked me to talk: Chinese, Vietnamese, Islanders of various kinds, and Greeks – that’s all I saw, both in the library and on the streets.
    Grrrrrrrrr … I wrote her a stiff email, but not a rude one, I promise ! 😀

    • We are having internet melt-down here, Margaret, as we switch providers. I replied to this a couple of hours ago and it clearly got lost in the ether. We went off our provider on Monday and lovely Telstra reckons they’ll have us back on the air next Tuesday evening. Can you believe it!! Meanwhile we are using one of those hot-spot wireless sticks but it’s very erratic. Talk about mad.

      Anyhow, you’re lucky as my reply was a little cheeky! I did however say that that was really rude of Marrickville. You can’t assume someone in Sydney will be home at 8.30 when they have that sort of appointment.

      As for the demographic. fascinating. As you say, your sort of book is probably not for them!

      • Indeed. I’m not at all put out by the total absence of interested parties, Sue – only by the idiot woman’s rudeness. I do wish she’d been sensible from the start and told me about the demographic.
        As for Telstra – I have no words. And that’s the truth ! 🙂

  3. Your review certainly makes me want to read it. If I haven’t got it from a library by the time Lisa reads your copy, maybe you’ll let me read it too. Lisa often hands books on to me; I read more slowly [ and have less bookshelf space] so there’s rarely any traffic the other way.


    • LOL Carol … that sounds fine. I’d probably like it back one day – cos I like to collect my Aussie women authors! I’d like to see more people read it and tell me what they think.

  4. That Lisa, she’s tricksy! Did you find yourself wondering why you waited so long to read the book? And, what book filled the space vacated by this one in your bedside cabinet?

    • She sure is, Stefanie … she knows my blackhole too well, I fear!

      And yes, I did wonder why I took so long – not only was it a good read, it was a pretty quick read,

      As for what’s filled the space, that’s a good question! Perhaps I should say the Jessica Anderson that Lisa sent to me but I plan to read it in less that 15 years or so!!

  5. I haven’t been the greatest fan of Jessica Anderson (sorry, I know, I know, more my failings I suspect), so I haven’t read this book. I did laugh though at your musings re unread books that were presents. I’m in the same boat. I’m terrible at reading books that were presents- even though they are books that I asked for, not random books as presents. This year I got three books for Christmas, and managed to read one (The Fault in Our Stars) in January- a world record I suspect. Indeed the situation is so bad that my husband refuses to buy me books anymore, because he can name all the books he’s bought me and I haven’t read- they do go back a way, I don’t think quite as far as 98, maybe 2002.. But to be fair I have read some of that one (collected works of Oscar Wilde), just not all of it.

    Back to the wattle birds. I know you don’t like errors, and there is a slight problem with the bird photo. Yellow wattle birds are endemic to Tasmania, and so not to be found in either Canberrra or Sydney. We have red wattle birds up here- which look pretty much the same it’s true. Wattlebirds are named for the little dangly bits on the sides of their heads (which are called wattles for some reason), not for any predilection to eat wattle. So ours up here have red wattles, while the birds in Tasmania have yellow wattles. That picture on wiki isn’t that great to be honest- the wattle looks pinkish, and is hard for my non expert eyes to tell. I think the yellow ones have the more obvious white bits on the tails than our red ones.

    • Thanks Louise … You’re right, it is a red wattle bird and that’s what we have in our area. I got myself confused. I’ll try to remember to fix it when I’m back home on my laptop.

      I must say that I get way fewer books these recent years but some still persist for which I thank them … My brother and his family gave me All the birds singing for Xmas and I’ve read it, and my parents gave me the Flanagan which I’m dying to read but hope my reading group will do in the second half of the year.

  6. Sounds like another to put on my TBR pile, but hopefully I won’t wait 16 years ha! Love a story told over a short amount of time-three days-oportunity to really delve into the nitty-gritty.

    • I hope you wasn’t eating Julie .. Come back and tell us when you do get to it! You’re right, concentrated time books can be great for getting to the heart of things. You can’t gloss over much if you are focused on a small time-frame can you.

    • Oh dear … “I hope you wasn’t eating” … Surely that’s a gremlin. I’d blame autocorrect except I have no idea what it was correcting! Or, I could blame minor jet lag as we’d just flown from Toronto to LA making yesterday a rather long day …

  7. Pingback: April 2014 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  8. Pingback: One of the Wattle Birds, by Jessica Anderson | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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  10. The Jessie Street National Women’s Library Book Club will be discussing “Tirra Lirra by the River” – and one other title of our choice – next week… Wattle Bird may well be it for me …took a while to appreciate Cec … all that deceit bugged me … but the denouement won me over completely, and I was in tears of delight over the humanity of her father and his wife …not many books break me up ….Trouble is, “The Commandant” sways me too – I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 titles I have read so far …Thank you for a splendid review …now I have to google the frequently mentioned tristania tree and go find a copy of Malory …

    • Thanks Hanne. Yes, I understand your initial uncertainty about One of the wattle birds. It’s a bit deceptive I think and could be easy to pass over and miss what it has to offer (if I remember my reaction at the time) when you are patient with it. I’m so glad you liked my review. The commandant is memorable too I agree – and its interesting that it’s her only historical novel. I’m torn between reading more of hers, or re-reading Tirra Lirra which I read such a long long time ago. Anyhow, I love the idea of your book club’s discussing her in this way.

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